Lenny Pickett

While it can be used when talking about any musician, having “chops” is a phrase that applies particularly to saxophonists. And never in the history of the tenor sax has anyone had quite the altissimo chops of Lenny Pickett. Most famous as part of the Saturday Night Live band which he still co–directs, Pickett, who also teaches at NYU, is also the guy who came up with the famous sax part in the show’s long running theme music. Although the SNL band has had its share of horn–playing luminaries, Randy Brecker, David Sanborn, and “Blue” Lou Marini to name a few, Pickett is the most interesting of the bunch if only because he has only just now made his second record under this own name in his entire 40 year career! Conversely, as a sideman his discography is yards long. To name just a few, he’s played on records by Elton John, The Brothers Johnson, The Meters, David Bowie, Tower of Power, Madonna, Little Feat, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and the list goes on. The reason for his popularity as a hired gun is that no one has ever quite worked the upper registers of the instrument like Pickett. This addiction to the squeal is also why Pickett loses points with some for being a one trick pony, but what a trick it is. On The Prescription recorded in Finland with the UMO Jazz Orchestra (and only on CD at the moment), Pickett, who wrote eight of the ten tracks shows that his funk/soul/R&B bag still has legs. This is snappy, brassy, inventively–arranged, big band R&B and near funk, much more Louis Jordan than Duke Ellington. Even on a jazz cut like “The Big Wiggle,” Pickett, who is almost entirely self–taught, gets his squeals in. The closer, “What is Hip?,”the old chestnut from Tower of Power where Lenny was a featured soloist, is Pickett at his nimble, funky best.

It’s also nice that The Prescription is so well–recorded, and has a page of recording specs in the booklet that lists which microphones were used for each player. Musically, this is all very mainstream stuff, and jazz purists will sniff that this is all too common. But if the great sax players are ultimately judged on their ability to fashion an instantly recognizable tone, then Lenny Pickett’s gritty howls and fairly amazing shrieks (what an embouchure!) make him one of the best.

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COMMENTS
Bixby's picture

"But if the great brass players are ultimately judged on their ability to fashion an instantly recognizable tone, then Lenny Pickett’s gritty howls and fairly amazing shrieks (what an embouchure!) make him one of the best."

Saxophone is a woodwind instrument, not a brass instrument.

Robert J Reina's picture

When my musical mentor, my uncle Frank Iacovone, composer and big band arranger, died in 1987, his daughter asked my assistance to find a home for some of his instruments. His 1920s vintage Selmer soprano sax was a tough one. I called Lenny Pickett for advice. He said, "The problem is, those old saxes play and sound different than the modern stuff. Modern players won't want them." That gave me an idea. I called my old high school buddy, Vince Giordano, who I hadn't spoken with since high school. Vince leads a swing band called The Nighthawks, and since has done music for Prarie Home Companion and Boardwalk Empire. He happily took the sax and ended up with my uncle's entire sheet music collection as well.

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