Imagine the excitement of a cutting session between two brilliant musicians, trading eight-bar sections, then four-bar sections, then two; each one trying to outdo the other, spurring each other on to greater and greater intensity. Frenzied rooms watched as the solos culminated in both guys playing really loud, really high and really fast.
“People love hearing two saxophones,” says tenor player Steve Wood. “But it’s more than just the idea of the conflict. I think another thing that people like about it is that both guys are playing the same instrument, but they sound completely different. It’s kind of interesting how two people can take the same instrument and yet sound so totally unlike each other.”
Wood studied music at one of the country’s first jazz programs, under the direction of Marvin “Doc” Holiday at Oakland University. He’s one of the two tenor saxophone players featured in Detroit Tenors. The group’s debut Detroit Music Factory recording, by the same name, is very much about the two-tenor saxophone tradition in jazz.
“Detroit Tenors” the record, like Detroit Tenors the band, is a shared vision between Wood and fellow tenor saxophone player, Carl Cafagna.
“Carl is a great saxophone player,” says Wood about Cafagna, who studied jazz at Berklee College of Music and created most of the arrangements on “Detroit Tenors.” “He’s had some great teachers and it really shows.”
Along with the two tenor saxophone players, Detroit Tenors features Scott Gwinnell on piano, Paul Keller on bass and Sean Dobbins on drums. Both Gwinnell and Dobbins are fellow Detroit Music Factory artists. Keller is an accomplished musician and bandleader in his own right, having played with Diana Krall, Harry Allen and several other notable jazz artists.
The release “Detroit Tenors” is a recording grounded in traditional jazz. The forms, the repertoire, the makeup of the ensemble, it’s all very traditional, and intentionally so. It’s the music of the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, but more precisely, it’s a tribute to that particular style of band.
Whether they’re playing in a straight ahead jazz manner or delivering some of the record’s modern repertoire, every one of the musicians of Detroit Tenors contributes to the band’s sound in a way that’s characteristic of the two-tenor bands of the past. Recorded in a single session, the group rarely needed more than a single take to hit their mark. Impressive, considering some the arrangements had never been rehearsed until the musicians were in the studio.
As a student, Woods’ last studied with master saxophonist George Coleman. It was legendary Detroit drummer Elvin Jones’ album “Coalition,” on which Coleman was one of the two featured tenor saxophone players, that first exposed Wood to the two-tenor sound. The experience was profoundly influential on Wood, which makes the tune’s inclusion of “5/4 Thing,” which was one of the tracks on “Coalition,” all the more significant.
“George was a big part of my development as a musician,” says Wood.
Although Cafagna brings most of the arrangements to “Detroit Tenors,” there are a few exceptions. In Gwinnell’s arrangement of the Dizzy Gillespie tune “Tanga,” the tenors do a lot of short eight and 16-bar solos interspersed with the melody of the song. It’s the way he combines the tenor saxophone solos with the statement of the melody that’s really interesting.
Not all of the tunes on “Detroit Tenors” are borrowed from the repertoire of other tenor players. Among the originals, it’s easy to get caught up in the relatively modern sound of Wood’s composition Mobius Modes, with its feeling of endless continuity sweeping the listener in, repetition after repetition.
In Cafagna’s composition “2 by 4,” he creates a characteristic harmonic motion similar to the Giant Steps chord progression. We recognize the familiar, albeit stretched out, flavor and charm in the way Cafagna’s dominant chord resolves to the major, then switches keys.
On the original “ODRP Blues,” a classic two-tenor, traditional 12-bar blues, Dobbins and Keller really strike a groove. They lock up, feeling the rhythm so that their timing is perfectly in sync. It’s pure joy.