In a recent Facebook posting a New York City big band leader complained that there are only a few good lead alto players in all of New York City. There were a lot of responses to the post but it was evident that the post touched a nerve. A lot of respondents commented on specific players they felt were capable. Only a few addressed the real issue—what makes a good lead alto player.
As a lead alto player and someone who trained future lead alto players I was moved to address this issue. The most important question is, besides subjective opinions, what makes a good lead alto player good? Of course, being a good player is an important part of it but all good alto players won’t necessarily be good lead players. Sure, you need to be able to get around your horn but your knowledge of the history of big band playing weighs more heavily. You must have listened to good lead alto players and good big bands to gain the necessary knowledge. Good lead alto players “color” the sound of the band. First and foremost, lead players must know what the saxophone section’s function is. If there is a comparison with the function of strings in classical music, the saxophone section in a jazz ensemble would be that comparison. The section that colors the band or is used to introduce melodic ideas is the saxophone section. When the saxophones are not carrying the melody, they are playing sweeping, moving lines that are counter melodies, or they are playing complementary lines to the melody.
Because of the nature of the saxophone instruments’ sound, the saxophone section blends with brass instruments to create a more mellow overall sound. If brass instruments are known for providing the punch for a band, saxophones are known for “rounding out” the sound of the band. Therefore, the lead alto has to listen to the lead trumpet and lead trombone to effectively do this (that’s the reason most bands have all lead players in the middle of the band).
So, that brings us to the question, what makes a good lead player? The answer is based on many things. A good lead player needs to possess a good sense of time; a good, full sound; good intonation and a good sense of what a big band should sound like. Let’s address each of these items separately.
Poor lead alto players tend to rush through lines. During sax solis this can be disastrous but inside tutti sections this can cause the band to be disjointed and unable to achieve a cohesive sound. Lead alto players must possess a strong sense of time and be able to listen to the rhythm section and follow the director/leader in order to hold the section and band together. Accurate reading of difficult rhythms is also a must, so good lead players must read music well.
A lead alto player’s sound not only colors the sax section but also establishes the band’s color. The function of the lead trumpet is to take command of the band’s sound and the function of the lead alto player’s sound is to “mellow” out the band’s sound and smooth out the band’s rough edges. The punch of the band comes from the brasses by design and the milder colors are achieved by the sax section’s collective sound. This is not to suggest that saxophones can’t punch or “speak,” it simply means that brass instruments by design punch harder.
Saxophones are given the bad reputation of playing out of tune by nature. There is nothing more incorrect. Saxophones can be played in tune consistently if saxophone players learn to play in tune with themselves and others. Vintage saxophones by design have some notes that consistently play out of tune. Good saxophone players work on their instruments long enough to recognize what notes need adjustments while playing. Newer instruments have fewer notes, if any, that consistently play out of tune. A good lead player plays well enough in tune to set the pitch center for their section and the band. Working with a tuner can help players develop a good sense of pitch. This enables the player to make adjustments as they play and project good intonation throughout the band.
A good lead player projects confidence while playing. This confidence is passed on to the rest of the band by the way the lead player plays his/her lines. The balance of projecting the sound with confidence and overplaying is vital for a lead player to immediately recognize. The lead player has to strike a balance between projecting a confident sound for the section to follow and a sound that throws the band’s dynamic balance out of whack. This means the player must have a grasp of his/her part in order to actively listen while playing.
In order to become a good lead alto player one must listen to big bands from the past. Model lead players can be heard in old recordings of the Basie Band and Ellington Band. Fortunately, YouTube has lots of videos of some great big bands for you to see and hear. Developing players can see the visual cues lead players use to control their section’s attacks and releases. Yes, there are other great big bands besides Basie and Ellington but the standard was set by these two great bands. Studying the sounds of these bands provides insight into what the mind-set of a lead player should be. There is an “acceptable” big band sound that includes all working parts fitting together. Playing in a big band can provide “on the job training” and that training along with listening can help you develop into a good lead alto player. Most players don’t understand the importance of reading history, listening and playing to develop good skills. Doing one or two of these three things won’t work. If you want to become a great lead player you must have a clear understanding of your function. Being a good soloist, playing your horn proficiently and knowing jazz styles won’t necessarily translate into you becoming a good lead player. To become a good lead player you must learn how to take the lead.