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 codirects, 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 hornplaying 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, inventivelyarranged, 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 selftaught, 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 wellrecorded, 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.