Piece of the Week: Sketches for Saxophone (2021)

I first became interested in the saxophone some thirty years ago, when I was commissioned to write ‘Three Picasso Portraits’ for the Saxology saxophone quartet (these pieces may feature in another blog). And at about the same time, our son Sam got interested in playing the sax, and our house was soon filled with the sound of saxophone practise and saxophone recordings. I hadn’t really had very much to do with the sax before then, and it was amazing to hear the different musical styles that this versatile instrument could respond to. Invented in the 19th century, it was originally a ‘classical’ instrument for which, particularly in France, a great deal of repertoire was written, but then in the 1920s its flexibility of tone helped it to also become a staple of the jazz world, where its closeness to the singing voice and ability to ‘bend’ the tone expressively was ideal, as the blues tradition gradually became integrated into dance music.

Thirty years on from our early days of saxophone exploration, Sam is now a professional saxophonist and last year I wrote him some pieces which he performed at his fortieth birthday concert. Sketches for Saxophone, three pieces for alto saxophone and piano, gently refer to different aspects of the saxophone’s development.  They are all based on the same motif, but are contrasting in style. The first movement, ‘Shifting Skies’ alternates and combines an English pastoralism with French humour and rhythmic wit.  The second movement, ‘Blue Landscape’ explores the expressive jazz-influenced aspect of the saxophone, with a pensive, singing melody supported by rich harmonies. And the last movement, ‘Restless Energy’, begins like a fast march in a mid-European neo-classical finale style, but is often sidelined by throwaway syncopation.

So I think I learned much of what suited the saxophone by listening to Sam practising, and exploring the repertoire, in his formative years before he went to college. A rare privilege for a composer to hear a developing knowledge of musical style and of technique over a period of many years.

Sketches for Saxophone is published by Saxtet Publications, and you can hear and see a digital scrolling score here.