When people think of the saxophone, they don’t immediately think of classical music. “People are often amazed at the different sounds,” says Fred Davis, who plays soprano in his quartet Sax in the City. “They often associate the saxophone with just pop music or, typically, jazz, and this is a classical-based saxophone quartet.”
The Charleston-based group’s repertoire spans an impressive range of time periods. Their set, which will be performed at Forte Jazz Lounge at 7:00pm on Tuesday, June 8th, is an eclectic mix of transcriptions and original works for saxophone, from Bach to the ragtime-era “Beautiful Ohio Blues” to an arrangement of “Over the Rainbow”. There will also be a tango by Italian composer Roberto di Marino, a tribute to the late pianist Chick Corea, and what Davis describes as “the first quartet probably ever written for saxophone”, published in 1879 by Caryl Florio.
The year the Florio quartet was published, the saxophone was only about 35 years old. First patented by Belgian woodwind player Adolphe Sax, it has been constructed in myriad sizes and shapes in the century-and-a-half since its conception. Davis has a deep appreciation for this history, which is apparent in his equipment choices. “I play a vintage curved soprano saxophone, which is very interesting,” (modern sopranos are typically straight). “It’s a hundred-year-old saxophone… and it has a very, very interesting, dark, almost flute-like sound.”
Davis purchased the sax from New York -based Dr. Paul Cohen - “probably the leading historian in the world on vintage saxophones” - whom he met in the ‘80s during his graduate studies at Manhattan School of Music. Dr. Cohen’s saxophone collection is a sight to see for anyone interested in rare and unusual instruments. “He has saxophones dating back to the very beginning of 1850, and saxophones that don’t even look like modern saxophones.”
Even the mouthpiece was carefully chosen. Both Davis and another member of Sax in the City have mouthpieces modeled after the original Adolphe Sax design, produced by Dr. Ronald Caravan. “The instruments of that period sound different than the instruments of today,” says Davis. They’ve tried to copy it, but it’s not the same. It’s like trying to copy a Stradivarius. They haven’t really mastered it.”
Davis is what Charlestonians call a “transplant”, having moved here from New York after retiring from public school teaching. “I wanted the more laid-back lifestyle, little bit warmer environment. I love it down here.” Though he has played at Forte Jazz Lounge before, in owner Joe Clarke’s big band, he is excited to bring his eclectic sound to the King Street club.
“Joe has so many different styles. It’s based in jazz, but he has things that go into more R&B sometimes, some blues things. It’s really the only true club that’s really in existence for that type of music. ...Forte is a diamond in the rough, and things seem to be picking up.”