If you don't care much for the jazz recordings of tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh because you've found the music a tad hairy—with all its Lennie Tristano theory and freewheeling feel—I have just the album for you. This one will allow you to finally appreciate Marsh's qualities—seamless solos that don't seem to require a breath and highly lyrical improvisations.
The way into Marsh is through The Ballad Album. Recorded in Monster, the Netherlands, in April 1983, Marsh was joined by Lou Levy on piano, Jesper Lundgaard on bass and James Martin on drums. For too long, Marsh has remained a cult figure—known and appreciated only by a minority of jazz fans who tend to be music school folk. But this is largely because the greater majority hasn't really been properly exposed to the factors that make Marsh special.
Marsh's vertical improvisational style (working up and down chords rather than toying with the melody) and his somewhat thin, tentative tone can be deceptive. At first listen, Marsh can sound like someone learning to play the instrument or rehearsing. But upon a more careful listen, you hear a tiger of an improviser and a swinger to boot.
To be sure, there's a primitive quality to Marsh's playing—but that's part of his charm. Like Tony Scott's clarinet, Marsh's tenor has both coarse and exceptional qualities—particularly as he tries to find his way through a solo. Like a sailor fumbling for his keys, Marsh's appeal rests in his imperfections and ultimate triumph.
On The Ballad Album, what you get are, well, ballads— including Spring Is Here, The Nearness of You, a glorious Time on My Hands, Emily and one of the most clever slow-ballad treatments of How High the Moon. What you also get is Levy on piano. Marsh was always most inventive with the backing of a strong, smart pianist. Here, Levy fans the tastiest and most gentle voicings—matching and complementing Marsh's tone.
After you dig this album (and trust me, you will), my suggestion is to type "Warne Marsh" into YouTube. Work your way through the material to find the next level of Marsh that strikes your fancy. Once you suspend your biases in favor of name-brand tenors, your heart will open and you'll hear the delicate origami quality of Marsh's high-register solos.
JazzWax tracks: Warne Marsh's The Ballad Album (Criss Cross) is available as a CD and download here.
A JazzWax thanks to Todd Selbert.
JazzWax clip: Here's Time on My Hands. See if you can figure out where Marsh takes his breaths...