Jazz Album Review: The Baritone Sax of Josh Sinton — Exploring the Possibilities

By Michael Ullman

These pieces are an intellectual challenge to the listener as well as a sensual pleasure. They should send saxophonists back to the practice room.

Josh Sinton, couloir & book of practitioners, vol. 2, book W (2 CDs, FiP Recordings)

Josh Sinton is a virtuoso baritone saxophonist, which sounds like a contradiction in terms. Compared to an alto or tenor, the baritone is a cumbersome instrument, though its distinctive color was draw on beautifully by Ellington and others. (Harry Carney was the first baritone saxophonist I saw soloing.) Numerous bop and post-bop players have taken on the challenge presented by the instrument, including Serge Chaloff, who in his version of “Body and Soul” made the bari sax sound tender; Pepper Adams, who embraced a rugged tone; and Gerry Mulligan, who crafted a cool lyrical approach and restrained sound. I heard a solo baritone concert in the Public Theater featuring Hamiet Bluiett, whose blues dexterity still resonates with me. Still, few musicians have had the opportunity (or perhaps desire) to do what Josh Sinton does on FiP Recordings: make a double album of solo baritone saxophone pieces, freely improvising on his own ideas and those of master soprano saxophonist (and composer) Steve Lacy.

These are not Sinton’s first solo baritone sessions. In 2021 he made b. At the time of that project he explained, “Each of the tracks are quite different and distinct from each other and that was important to me…. These are the moments, the pieces, the disquisitions that best captured my thought/emotion process as they were made.” He went on to say, “It’s taken me time to learn how to properly use the baritone saxophone for what it was intended: a tool of creative expression. I had to learn specifically ‘what’ I wanted to articulate as well as learning ‘how’ best to do this.” A few sessions later, he knows what he wants.

I am listening to the two new discs in a single package: they are available separately as downloads. I deduce from the titles of the tracks in Couloir that Sinton must be a mountain climber. Most of the titles are words that are used to describe the corridors in a mountain, what Westerners call passes. Evidently, Sinton distinguishes amongst gills, flumes, interstices, and seams. There are exceptions here to the corridor idea: “Talus” begins with a wild flurry and continues on gradually to generate more excited versions of that disturbance until Sinton is squealing and sliding and slipping. Talus is the kind of loose stones you find going down a mountain, the pebbles that seem to slip out from under your boots. I thought “Scree” meant the same thing. Not to Sinton. “Scree” begins again with flurries of notes, but deep in the instrument and in a kind of hidden, subdued tone. It is as if he is playing underwater at times. Also, there are held notes and rushes of tones that make him sound like he is in a hurry but doesn’t want anyone to know. “Abyss” starts at the other end of the baritone’s range, high up. Sinton plays single notes, some of which he seems to force out of his instrument. After each passage, he pauses and then plays the sequel. He plays “Seam” with full-throated notes. This track features a pretty, lyrical melody that sounds hymn-like.

John Sinton

The source for the themes of the second disc, Book of Practitioners, Volume 2, Book W, is the great soprano saxophonist-composer-writer Steve Lacy, who wrote books of exercises named after letters of the alphabet. Each number of this recording is named after a W word. As rendered by Sinton, they are longer pieces than those inspired by the mountainous. Each is dedicated to a prominent artistic figure, ranging from Ralph Richardson and George Orwell to Jerome Kern and Lennie Tristano. Each starts with an introductory phrase or series of phrases, which I take were given by Lacy. “Whoops (to Peter Sellers)” begins with an upward arpeggio and a more chromatic falling back. That is the elemental material with which Sinton works, molding varying ascents and descents in broad or subtle ways, sometimes holding one note further than before, on occasion shifting accents or the volume.

“Willy Nilly (dedicated to Ralph Richardson)” begins, like the others, with a single repeated phrase. The repetitions become less and less exact; there will be a catch in the rhythm, a shift in tone or tempo that sustains our interest. Only Lacy (and perhaps Sinton) knows why the dedication of the track for filmmaker Orson Welles is called “Wrinkles.” The game for Sinton is what to make of these minimal themes — that do often sound like exercises. It isn’t easy. At times on “Wrinkles” he sounds like he has surrendered to practicing scales. The pieces are meant to demonstrate not only what Sinton can do with certain themes, but what he can do with a baritone sax, how he can bring out all its possibilities in tone, range, and basic sound. These pieces are an intellectual challenge to the listener as well as a sensual pleasure. They should send saxophonists back to the practice room.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bimonthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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