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Metro Canada: The Devil’s Horn and the trebled history of the saxophone

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 12.44.55 PMBy Richard Crouse – Metro Canada

The sexy and seductive sound of the saxophone is as close to the cooing voice of a loved one is any instrument can be. Yet, for that very reason the instrument has had a long and storied past ripe with more intrigue than any James Patterson thriller. In the new documentary The Devil’s Horn director Larry Weinstein walks us through the sax’s wild, woolly and supposedly cursed history.

“It is one of these things where truth is stranger than fiction,” he says. “Certainly the life of [inventor] Adolphe Sax is terribly bizarre. From the near deaths he had as a child to the jealousy of instrument makers who actually tried to kill him, twice, and burn down his factory, it looks entirely fictionalized but everything we say about him is true. Then he got this cancerous growth that was so large he couldn’t eat or drink or breathe. By the time he was ready to come back to work his patents had run out. He died in total poverty.”

The idea of the cursed instrument seems to have originated with its inventor. “Adolphe Sax himself had this dream that devils with saxophones were pulling people to hell.”

The movie describes how sax icons Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, John Coltrane and many other players of the “devil’s instrument” battled heroin addiction, creating sounds so carnal and voluptuous they were outlawed by everyone from the Nazis (who banned the sax from the Earth) to the Vatican. Movie studios barred it from soundtracks and it put the sex in sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

“I always thought when they talked about it sounding like a human voice they meant the timbre of the saxophone. Like the human voice the sax has alto, tenor, soprano and bass, but I think it also has to do with the fact that it can bend and growl, that it can moan and weave around seductively. Also, you can play with so little air it can whisper but it can also scream and be much louder than most of the other brass instruments.”

Of course the horn and its players aren’t truly cursed but Weinstein says, “other instrumentalists have those problems and they exist in classical music too, but for some reason not to the extent that saxophonists have suffered.”

Using a mix of archival footage and new interviews with musicians like Colin Stetson and Giuseppi Logan, Weinstein gets past that catchy concept to make a compelling case for the sax as more than a symbol of depravity and immorality and Mr. Sax as “one of the greatest geniuses in the history of music.”

“The problem with the saxophone is you pick it up, blow into it and there is a beautiful rich sound right away. Adolphe Sax made it so people who can’t play well, sound good. That’s the genius of the guy. All other instruments evolved out of other instruments. This guy, in about 1840 said, ‘I want to make an instrument with this sound and I’m going to have to make it brass and give it the mouthpiece of a clarinet and the fingerboard of a flute.’ And he invented it. Most people if they looked at an 1846 saxophone they would think it looked like a modern saxophone and the sound is almost the same.”

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