So hardwired are our synapses that we are sure the saxophone, like jazz, is an entirely American invention. But in actuality this most romantic of jazz instruments, often purringly referred to as the sexaphone, was invented in 1841 in the lowlands of a somewhat more prosaic Belgium.

Adolphe Sax, a musician and instrument maker was in search of a sound that floated somewhere between the silken tone of the clarinet and the brash flare of the trumpet.  So with some experimentation in a ritual not entirely unlike Mother Nature blending a duck with a beaver to create the platypus, Mr Sax attached the mouthpiece of a woodwind to an oddly shaped brass body, and voila!  The year was 1841.

A few composers wrote the strange instrument into their orchestral pieces, most famously Hector Berlioz, an equally adventurous musical soul.  He praised Sax and his inventions by writing “the character of such sound is absolutely new, and does not resemble any of the timbres heard up till now”. He especially liked the “intensity” of the sound though doubted it could ever play fast music (Even geniuses get things wrong from time to time).

It was in French military bands that le Saxaphon found its natural environment. And as the new American music called jazz grew with the new century, players like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young laid down in the 1930s the basic templates of the sax sound: full-bodied like a Cabernet or light and airy like champagne. So brilliant was their mastery in making the saxophone their own that we can be forgiven for thinking it is all-American.

In very quick order, in the hands of jazz musicians and their natural enemies, the missionaries, this absurd Belgian horn’s fame spread throughout the world, including the subcontinent.  South Asian wedding bands quickly embraced the sax just as their European counterparts did a century earlier. And clueless heroes and heroines by the score from the Big B and Madhuri to nearly every member of the Kapoor clan have used the saxophone as a prop in hundreds of filmi club scenes.

Scroll has recently profiled the massively important Manohari Singh, RD Burman’s arranger and sax man who is responsible for some of the great riffs we all love.  And the work of Kadri Gopalnath who has co-opted the saxophone into the world of Carnatic music is well known.  But there are plenty of other milestones along the desi sax highway that deserve attention, so come along for the ride.

The Braz Gonsalves 7
Raga Rock

A seminal figure in Indian popular music in general and jazz in particular, Braz Gonsalves lives out the winter of his years in Goa, living a quiet, reflective and Catholic life . But in the 1960s and 1970s, Mr Gonsalves, leading his own band and as a member of others’, including the ground-breaking Louis Banks Brotherhood, tore up the nightclubs of Calcutta and Bombay with his power playing.  Raga Rock is a piece that swings, as all jazz must, but with a rocky sheen that was the vogue of bands like Blood Sweat and Tears or even Iron Butterfly. But the chops of these players in no way suggest "garage band". Raga Rock features sparkling solos on the trumpet and fine keyboarding by Banks that is tied together with Gonsalves’ undulating, rising and falling snakecharmer-like horn playing that hints at the exotic Orient.  Though he toured internationally, Gonsalves' reputation has struggled to emerge out of the footnotes of jazz histories.

Joe Gomes
O Saathi Re

Joe Gomes, like Manohari Singh, made his living in the studio orchestras of the  Hindi cinema industry.  With his brother John, Joe was especially close to C Ramachandra and may have played a role in birthing the classic Kishore hit Eena, Meena Deeka. The words of the song were inspired by kids chanting "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe", while playing outside Ramachandra's music room. The composer  created the first line of the song, "Eena Meena Deeka, De Dai Damanika" to which Gomes added the words "Makanaka" (Konkani for "I don't want"). They kept on adding more nonsense rhymes till they ended with "Rum pumpo!" Was Joe in the room too? We don’t know but he did make a couple of albums of film music covers in the 70s, from which this sweet rendition is taken.

Spinboldak Saxophony

Now this is a rarity.  Purloined from an Afghan’s USB drive that was plugged into his pickup’s dashboard, the track mixes some incredibly soulful and impressionistic sax playing with rubab, tanpura and sitar.  Spinboldak, or "white desert",  is a border town on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and one of the main land crossings into Kandahar Province. It is hard to imagine this sort of music would have much of an audience among the Talibs of southern Afghanistan. Their loss entirely.

Rudresh Mahantappa

One of America’s amazing battalion of South Asian jazz warriors, Rudresh Mahantappa is considered a brilliant saxophone innovator and an explorer on the cutting edges of jazz.  Born in Colorado into an immigrant family, Mahantappa’s musical vision and collaborations often try to make sense (or re-imagine) his understanding of the land of his fathers.  Abhogi, from his album Gamak, is a wonderfully fresh and fun interpretation of the Carnatic raga of the same name. Mixing twangy –dare I say, country-guitar bursts with underwater bubblemaking and more mainstream rhythmic passages this track of contemporary American jazz simply snaps and sparkles.

Sahib Shihab
Om Mani Padme Om

The final track, I confess, does stretch the "definition" of South Asian a fair bit. Sahib Shihab was an American convert to Islam who settled and lived most of his adult years in Denmark.  Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925 Shihab was an early convert to Ahmadiya Islam, brought to America by Pakistani missionaries.  Though, as for many others, his initial conversion was more a statement of  political consciousness than religious statement, in his middle years he became a devout believer.  Not so orthodox, however, to eschew inspiration from competing faiths as this Buddhist-titled track demonstrates. A lovely, fast moving piece it echoes the seminal track of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme with its intricate constructions, pace and chanting voices.