I can still see my Fender-dented friends rolling with laughter when I spinned my saxophone discs back in the late '60s. You remember, of course, how ignoble horns had become during psychedelia (unless you confined your digging strictly to jazz, and to Coltrane at that), and how derisive the reactions to BS&T and Chicago when they appeared on a musical horizon overshadowed by thunderous guitar. The virtual disappearance of rock saxophone during those years was ironic. Ten years before, after all, Curtis-style solos kingpinned most rocking platters. But by 1968 you couldn't trade a Selmer tenor for a pair of Cream tickets.
Enter Los Angeles tenorman and arranger Tom Scott. Scott has risen to prominence through tours with George Harrison and Joni Mitchell, though his rise to status as a musician has been less automatic. Whether it's a standard rock petulance about saxophone, or a high-minded condescension toward so-called derivative players, Scott's almost singlehanded conception of a violently outspoken idiom of rock saxophone, perfectly suited to the demands of an electric environment, has received almost no critical notice.
The blade of Scott's tone is a stone shocker, a big draw, and it has developed, like Dave Sanborn's, as a hornman's adaptive reaction to the frustrating power of electric guitar. Scott says the taut, punchy side of his sound really emerged when guitarist Larry Carlton joined what was soon to become the L.A. Express in the late '60s. Scott found himself challenged by a new electric edge that sent him close to the mike in search of that big brash roadhouse sound which he's now soldered to his earlier jazz training.
To be sure, much of Scott's success is a product more of limitation than of genius. But craft grows from confinement, and we can dig him for finding a road even if he may not have the gas to travel it down (witness, for example, the flubbed phrasing and solos right off the new record - "New York Connection" on Ode - during his Bottom Line engagement in February). Even on his early jazz recordings the phrases come short - too short in the hard-driving context of those sessions - betraying by their brevity an inability to work the extended phrase of the great swinging solo. So the shift to the more minimal demands of rock was clearly a withdrawal.
But a productive one. Scott has after all managed to extract the basic ore of funk's phraseology and turn it into a tensile mode of expression for rock horn. His phrases turn back on themselves with classic soul syncopation, each figure winding behind its predecessor till the last one lands on the inevitable tonic or fifth at the end of a given chord cycle. Couple this to Scott's steaming tone, and you can see why a palpable hush grips concert halls when this fugitive tenor rips out of a dense network of guitar and organ. Scott is, after all, a jazzman who came in from the cold, and the narrow desperation of his vision is a signature of his exile from the perils of real jazz performance.
Of course, this stance is by no means without its counterparts and forebears. It harkens back, inevitably, to King Curtis and the whole history of Texas tenor, the great Second Tradition of soul saxophone that includes everybody from Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons to Stanley Turrentine and Fathead Newman. "When I heard King Curtis," he says, "I thought - now that's the way to play with a rock and roll band." So his earlier jazz influences - Cannonball, Getz, Coltrane, and so on - got traded in. The Manhattan sidemen that Scott has chosen to work with since his departure from the L.A. Express reaffirm the King Curtis connection since many of them - Ralph McDonald, Richard Tee, Chuck Rainey, Eric Gale - worked with Curtis for years before his death in 1971. This literal reaffirmation of roots turns the old charge of derivation (the inevitable component, after all, of anybody's sound, deep into the immemorial history of the blues) into a resurrection of that main tradition of rock and roll horn so long ignored by the generation that grew from it.
Originally published in The Village Voice, April 26, 1976