Recently on YouTube, I read a comment indicating that Paul Desmond was the most lyrical of the Jazz alto saxophonists. I wholeheartedly disagree.
That singular honor goes to John Cornelius Hodges, Johnny Hodges. Charlie Parker called him “the Lily Pons of his instrument”.
He had a pure tone and economy of melody on both the blues and ballads that won him admiration from musicians of all eras and styles, from Ben Webster and John Coltrane, who both played with him when he had his own orchestra in the 1950’s, to Lawrence Welk, who featured him in an album of standards.
His highly individualistic playing style, which featured the use of a wide vibrato and much sliding between slurred notes, was frequently imitated.
Rab is the personification of unsurpassed virtuosity. Possessed of a tone so beautiful, he could ravage you with the sound of his horn. No alto horn player’s sound remotely comes close. He was also unsurpassed at melodic improvisation.
Unlike the creamy saccharine tone of Otto James “Toby” Hardwicke, or the abstract beauty aesthetic of dandy Benny Carter, he’s was beauty, but with a cutting blues edge. Johnny was, after all, a blues player.
The loss of Hodges’ sound prompted Duke Ellington, upon learning of the musician’s death from a heart attack, to lament to JET magazine, “The band will never sound the same without Johnny…” In Ellington’s eulogy of Hodges, he said, “Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes—this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.”
And. Yes. I can be seduced by the sound of very fast players, and I do confess that I need my regular fix of Bop. But. Music is not just about playing a lot of notes, very fast. A soulless machine can play very fast, the fastest, but no machine can beguile you with its music.
Bottom line. Regardless of its tempo. Whether very fast or very slow, very hard or very soft, and everything in-between. Music is about telling the most engaging story. Johnny always told the most engaging stories with his horn.
Here I present Johnny and Benny Carter, but mostly The Rabbit. Honorable mention goes to Porter Kilbert, Willie Smith, Hilton Jefferson, and, of course, Russell Procope [i.e., listen to his solo on Black and Tan Fantasy, when Rab was not in the band].
Although I own a lot of Paul Desmond’s music, and he is quite lyrical for a modernist, he is clearly not the most lyrical alto sax player in Jazz.