The Choral Sea: New music for soprano saxophone and piano = GABRIEL JACKSON: The Choral Sea; GRAHAM FITKIN: Gate; Glass; NIKKI ILES: Alma Venus; MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE: Two Memorials; GAVIN BRYARS: Allegrasco – Sue McKenzie, saxophone/ Ingrid Sawers, p. – Delphian DCD34121, 58:55 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

My interest in the saxophone has always been more than just a curiosity, as I studied the instrument (and other woodwinds) years ago, including with one of the mentors of Sue McKenzie, Eugene Rousseau, and his noted and late lamented student, Kenneth Fischer. Back in my day the options for “classical” performance were limited indeed, and only thanks to the indefatigable efforts of Rousseau, Sigurd Rascher, and Marcel Mule, were there any original compositions at all. Those by luminaires like Glazunov and Ibert are still the standards, though the field, increasingly in the last 20 years, has really exploded, offering those who wish an ability to concentrate on classical saxophone alone, though most pros are still seduced, often by necessity, by the jazz and pop worlds.

The instrument is indelibly stamped with the modes of those last two mentioned idioms, unfortunately, because when I survey the field of great saxophonists, it’s only the classical world that has produced what I still consider the instrument’s ideal sound, though even that has become more internationalized, like everything else in recent years. Okay, one exception—Paul Desmond. And yes, before the emails come pouring in, I do consider Charlie Parker the greatest player of the saxophone who ever lived.

It’s way too early to see where Sue McKenzie will stack up in this most august pantheon, but with recordings like this to mark her way she should be in good stead. Her primary teacher was the fine Kyle Horch at the Royal College of Music in London, and this album of British or near-British composers opens a window into what the Brits have been up to saxophone-wise for the last 25 years or so. The music is uniformly engaging and excellent all around, one of the most intelligent and flat-out winsome recitals of the instrument I have heard in years. The soprano sax can be a real beast as well, an already notoriously fickle thing to keep in tune in general, but the sop adds another dimension of difficulty when one tries to keep the upper register from sounding like a strangulated oboe on speed. McKenzie has no such trouble, and accompanist Ingrid Sawers knows just how to partner this half-breed woodwind/ brass stinker.

I went back several times to re-evaluate the music, and came away totally defeated in terms of choosing among the roses present. Each is unique, and each is devilishly attractive in terms of overall sonic disposition and engaging attributes. If you are up to date at all these composers will be familiar, and they didn’t get stingy when writing these works—no throw-offs here. The sound is terrific, the playing doubly so, and the production values top of the line. This is great stuff—you have to hear it; I don’t care what you may or may not think of the saxophone.

—Steven Ritter