I remember going to a concert back in the 1970s, just when I was starting to get interested in jazz, and while in the men’s room, I overheard an “old” guy talking to a guy in his 30s. “Yeah, this band is good,” he started out,” but I saw Johnny Hodges with Ellington, and that young guy out there still has a lot to learn.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. How could anyone that old know what today’s musicians are supposed to sound like? Ah, the stupidity of youth!
Since then, I’ve obviously checked out Hodges, as well as the scores of wonderful players on the alto sax. That old geezer was on to something; after all of these years, Johnny Hodges is still  the sound to which all other alto sax players are compared. He is, it has been stated, the “Lilly Pons of Jazz.”

I’ve put down a list of some of the most gorgeous alto sax albums I’ve ever come across, some have a sweet tone, while others may be a bit more pungent. No matter what, check out at least one album from these giants of the alto sax.

  • Johnny Hodges- countless tunes like “Jeep’s Blues” or “Never No Lament” with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra are to be memorized. But his small group Side by Side and Back to Back with his boss, or his Everybody Loves Johnny Hodges are discs that will never go out of fashion.
  • Paul Desmond-like Hodges, he’s best known for his association with someone else, but it could be, and has been argued, that he, and not Dave Brubeck is what made that group as excellent as it was. His own albums with the cool toned guitarist Jim Hall as on Take Ten, or his lush CTI sessions are seductively swinging.
  • Art Pepper-towards the end of his famous career, Pepper’s tone was razor sharp, but his early days were a rich mix of hip and West Coast Cool. His teaming with Miles Davis’ sidemen on Meets the Rhythm Section as well as his Art Pepper + 11 are suavely swinging delights.
  • Willie Smith-possibly the most ignored of alto sax players, as he was overshadowed by Hodges and Carter. He had a laugh to his tone, and it worked gloriously in big band settings such as with Harry James, and particularly with Jimmie Lunceford’s “Lunceford Special.”
  • Benny Carter-his low tone at times resembled a tenor sax, with its creamy richness. His Further Definitions (along with Phil Woods) and Jazz Giant are examples of sophisticated heat.
  • Charlie Parker-the inventor of modern jazz usually played it torrid with an edgy tone, but once in awhile, as on his “With Strings” album, he could float like a feather.
  • Cannonball Adderley-like Parker, he was a bebopper, with the added edge of a gospel tone. Still, his work with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue is simply autumnal, while his own Something Else (with Davis as a sideman!) and Know What I Mean? feature the gorgeous side of this gentle giant.
  • Jackie McLean-yes! He’s mostly known for his acerbic tone, but his early Lights Out! is a warm and bluesy breeze.
  • Phil Woods-He put out a gazillion albums, but the ones with his classic quintet of Tom Harrell/tp, Steve Gilmore/b, Bill Goodwin/dr and Hal Galper/p with albums like Heaven and Gratitude, are priceless and timeless.
  • Paul Horn-here’s a guy you rarely hear about, as he’s usually associated with navel gazing meditation albums like Inside. However, he also put out a handful of melodic modal albums on both flute and alto sax, with 1960s Something Blue an absolute classic


  • Charlie Mariano & Herb Geller-I put my bonus picks together as they are both 1) mostly known for their West Coast Cool tones and 2) They put out a couple gorgeous albums together. Apart. Mariano is best known for his Mingus albums while Geller did some sensational material with Clifford Brown.


  • Al Gallodoro-Bandleader Jimmy Dorsey called him “the best sax player who ever lived.” He played from the 20s through his dying day in 2008, and he had a velvety tone that caresses your ears. His few albums as a leader such as Infinite Gallodoro and Out of Nowhere are hard to find, but if you do, you’ll never forget it.

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