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I have had a thought weighing on my mind for years and I’m wondering if anyone feels the same way. When I was trying to make a career of being a jazz musician I considered myself a ‘tenor’ player. However, I never felt like I could truly find my voice as an improviser. I think by the time that I starting dabbling in alto and soprano I had decided to move my career in a different direction. This is not relevant, but I always felt like there was a certain expectation that came along with being labeled a tenor player. Big tone, big presence, certain phrasing, lot’s of notes (not in a bad way and only when appropriate). It’s hard to explain and I’m hoping someone understands where I’m coming from. As an improviser, none of my biggest influences are tenor players. Don’t get me wrong, there are many tenor players that I loved and have studied, but my concept is just different. I probably put the pressure on myself rather than just being myself, but I always felt like there was an expectation as a tenor player to sound a certain way. Really curious how other people feel about this. Thanks for listening.
 

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I definitely get what you’re saying. I actually played alto exclusively for years. It was always “you have to play tenor” and all or you won’t get gigs... then when I kept getting gigs it was... “hey, if you’re getting gigs, keep doing it”. I eventually came to a different point which was play the instrument you would want to when you want to. I actually found playing alto helped my tenor playing and playing tenor at the same time helped my alto playing and I try to play whichever one I am feeling at the moment anyway. It’s not like I don’t practice in all the keys anyway. Yeah the embouchure is a little different but that just makes you more flexible. So, yeah... I encourage you to work towards wherever your musical journey leads you.
 

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Maybe another way to look at it is you are not really an “anything player” but a musician. Choose the instrument that feels right for the music you want to make, the occasion, or the band you are playing with. And there’s no rule that says you can’t play more than one type of horn at a time. If you are feeling alto or soprano more right now, then go down that path and see where it takes you. You might still find your way back to tenor one day. Or if you want to keep playing tenor and improvise like your alto or soprano playing influences, then do it. Make your own sound and people will appreciate you for you, not for some preconceived notion of how they think you are “supposed” to sound.
 

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Yes, I understand what you're saying. I started on clarinet, and gravitated to sax. When you play alto and soprano, you're a sax player, but when you pick up the tenor, you're a tenor man. The audience expects that big tenor sound, depending on the music, of course. In my opinion, of all the saxes (with the exception of bari, which I don't play), it's the tenor which is most imbued with mojo and folklore.
 

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I completely understand where you are coming from. There are times when I just want to pack up my sax forever and play only flute because I feel it's easier to have my voice on the instrument or get attention on it. Sounds like a joke, but I've seriously thought that. It's hard to find a voice on any sax because there are just so many good players and expectations (especially tenor players in the "jazz" world).

Ultimately, we are our own worst critics though and I always try to remember that it's about having fun by putting out music that I enjoy playing. If others like it too, then great! If not, then it's ok as well.

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Well, I don't really believe in the tenor man thing. I mean what is it that you can't get out of your playing that doesn't quite get you there? There are all kinds of voices on tenor with all kinds of vocabularies, they're not always big and bold with lots of notes. What's most important is what is your voice. Do you sound the way you want to? If not you need to analyze why you don't. As far as phrasing, again, that's up to you to develop, you need to play what you hear, never mind the status quo.

I started on alto way back in 1969. I played until the end of high school and then life got real and I didn't pick the horn back up until 1989. I got back to taking lessons and playing in community bands. In the mean time I started listening to all the great tenor players and so I bought a tenor. I played tenor for quite a few years but l always felt that something was off and unsatisfying. And then one day I realized that MY voice on the saxophone was on the alto. As soon as I went back to it I was home, back where I belong and that's the horn I can truly express myself on.

So, you need to figure out what it is that feeds your soul and immerse yourself in it.
 

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I love playing the tenor, more than any instrument, but there IS a degree of audience expectation. That's not a bad thing as such, it makes me practice more!
 

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Discussion Starter #8
This is all so interesting. Thank you. I often wonder if things would have been any different if I never took up tenor. When I was in college I was mainly an alto player. I’ll never forget that when I first started dabbling in tenor David Baker told me that he liked my voice on alto more. I was just too young and stupid to listen to him and played more and more tenor. At that time, I was listening to loads of Brecker, Rollins, and Henderson. No regrets. Just makes me think sometimes.
 

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I still listen to those guys (and a lot more ;). I think it’s more about defining your voice then letting the instrument define your voice. And it’s not that your voice isn’t tenor or isn’t alto but it needs to be distinctly yours. There are only a handful of modern players that I hear playing multiple voices; Chris Potter, mostly Tenor, Alto, Bass clarinet; Jeff Coffin, SATB & flute; Lenny Pickett, everyone knows his tenor playing but, I’ve seen him play bass and sarrusophone. I know plays at other instruments as well. I find that I try to make my alto playing and tenor playing an extension of each other so...
 

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I can relate as well. I played alto in college before I switched to tenor. I still feel today like I’m searching for a sound/concept on tenor but when I play alto or sop or bari I don’t have these same expectations and seem more ok with whatever sound I end up getting. Trying to define myself through only the tenor does seem defeating in a way; I suppose the idea that your concept as a musician transcends the particular horn you happen to be playing is useful and something I need to keep in mind.
 

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One of my more recent exercises has been to play all the feeling etudes on both horns and then up an octave into the altissimo; at least for alto and tenor. I’m not ready for that on soprano yet. I have considered doing them all in all twelve keys too but baby steps.
 

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Tenor sax is the lead guitar of jazz. There are definitely audience expectations.

Years ago I regularly attended a weekly blues jam. At first, I brought the tenor. There would always be hot tenor players at this jam who would show off all the licks and tricks they knew played as fast as possible during the time they were allotted. The audience loved that, because "tenor expectations". I knew I was not at that level technically and started bringing a bari. Suddenly the patrons dug the same styles that I played before, but now on a bari. The crowd expects baaarummpphs and low stuff from the bari, not red-hot tenor gunslinging. Even better, the hot tenors would have to sit after a couple of songs and I got to play all night, because nobody else ever brought a baritone!
 

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Discussion Starter #13
Tenor sax is the lead guitar of jazz. There are definitely audience expectations.

Years ago I regularly attended a weekly blues jam. At first, I brought the tenor. There would always be hot tenor players at this jam who would show off all the licks and tricks they knew played as fast as possible during the time they were allotted. The audience loved that, because "tenor expectations". I knew I was not at that level technically and started bringing a bari. Suddenly the patrons dug the same styles that I played before, but now on a bari. The crowd expects baaarummpphs and low stuff from the bari, not red-hot tenor gunslinging. Even better, the hot tenors would have to sit after a couple of songs and I got to play all night, because nobody else ever brought a baritone!
So interesting. Thanks for sharing.
 

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@Carter my experiences have been fairly similar to yours. Maybe one reason I love playing Bari over playing Tenor, though I play both. To go with your Tenor = Lead Guitar analogy, Bari is almost like the Bass player sometimes. When you rock a solo, everyone seems to dig it just because it is something different it seems. (I also play Bass guitar and toured for a couple years.)

I think there is a bit of an expectation of being an Alto player too. Someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems as there is this expectation of that super bright sound and lots of playing up in the Altissimo. Not necessarily the super fast chops of the Tenor, but just more of a screaming player.
 

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@robbieg Not necessarily altissimo here. It’s more style dependent. If Jazz, it needs to be either Bird/Cannonball like or Desmond like is the common expectation... when I was playing with the hip hop group they were more looking for something like Greg Osby or Sanborn. My particulars on alto are more geared towards some weird combination of Bobby Watson and Marc Russo though.
 

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Tenor sax is the lead guitar of jazz. There are definitely audience expectations.

Years ago I regularly attended a weekly blues jam. At first, I brought the tenor. There would always be hot tenor players at this jam who would show off all the licks and tricks they knew played as fast as possible during the time they were allotted. The audience loved that, because "tenor expectations". I knew I was not at that level technically and started bringing a bari. Suddenly the patrons dug the same styles that I played before, but now on a bari. The crowd expects baaarummpphs and low stuff from the bari, not red-hot tenor gunslinging. Even better, the hot tenors would have to sit after a couple of songs and I got to play all night, because nobody else ever brought a baritone!
I find there’s two distinctly different groups of people that attend jam sessions, particularly blues jams and they expect vastly different things out of the rotating groups/ interchangeable parts on stage. The musicians, particularly other players of your instrument, want to see what everyone’s got and sometimes egos get bruised and bad feelings happen. Then there’s the patrons (and staff) who just want to hear a solid couple hours of music without the extra long breaks that tend to happen because a lot of players don’t understand jam session etiquette. Except when I find myself at a particularly heavy blues session I can usually hang with anyone and I’m always receiving the “thanks for not jazzing it up and staying true to the blues” pats on the back from the hosts and other good players, but I find the crowd feedback for all the sax players (regardless of abilities) tends to be great and that we are loved because we’re often under represented at blues nights. Often the jazzers who overplay get the least amount of enthusiasm from the crowd. 🤷‍♂️

Edit: my expectations of myself as a tenor player and of tenor players is to fit in the pocket like you belong there and have something to say with conviction when it’s your turn to take the lead.
 

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I believe there are always expectations for every instrument and that the real magic happens in defying those expectations in a musical, organic way. The expectation for alto saxophone (in the jazz idiom at least) before Charlie Parker was to sound like Benny Carter or Johnny Hodges, and it took someone like Bird to break out of that mold and present a different option to the listener (and student of music). And there are countless other examples like that throughout the history of music. I would agree there is a certain expectation for a tenor player that comes, more or less, from the John Coltrane branch of playing (big sound, technical virtuosity, etc..), but that doesn't make a lighter, more lyrical approach like that of Lester Young (who I would put on the same branch, just closer to the roots) any less viable. In fact, I would wager that an audience hearing something outside of their own expectations would come as a surprise and delight, provided the underlying musicality and sincerity is there.
 

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I think we all carry around expectations, that are not just picked up from the audience but also from what we listen to and method books and so on, about what we can or should sound like. This goes from what type of mouthpieces are "good" to what phrases you should learn. I definitely get the sense that altoists in particular are supposed to get the Charlie Parker omnibook and play from it.

One thing that shook me out of this mentality a little recently is that I found a Charlie Mariano album called "Intuition". It doesn't really fit into any genre cleanly and I have enjoyed it a lot. It has widened my idea of what sax can be a little. Sometimes I listen to classical sax on YouTube for the same reason.

I think there are a lot of ways to play the blues. I've been working on the blues lately myself, and I feel exactly because it's fundamentally simple it can be a huge challenge. Ultimately I think playing your blues is the way to go. Having the right rhythm section helps too. Sometimes it takes a while for it to click. I once sat in at a blues bar every week for 6 months before I started feeling comfortable...
 
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