Other Ensembles

The Saxophone Summit



PHIL MARKOWITZ (piano) - CECIL MCBEE (bass) - BILLY HART (drums)



The Saxophone Summit is unprecedented. It features three of the most influential saxophonists of the past several decades teamed up with a rhythm section of extraordinary experience and skill. Musical situations like this are a rarity. Speaking for myself, to be part of such a group is something very special that I would like to share with interested readers and listeners.

The past several decades has seen an unprecedented wave of young players entering the fray as compared to previously. This is a natural result of the formalization of jazz at the university and conservatory level which has grown phenomenally worldwide. For the members of the Saxophone Summit whose formative years revert back for the most part to the 1950s and ‘60s our education was acquired by onsite training. We developed in the same era, a period rich in innovation and change both culturally as well as musically. Shared memories are a strong force, even more so as years pass. This group represents that principle in dramatic terms. Besides the obvious musical skills of the personnel, it is the commonality of vocabulary and experiences which are the major contributing factors influencing the group’s sound. As well, a list of the artists that this group of musicians has toured and recorded with constitutes a history of modern music in the second half of the twentieth century. On a personal level some of the musical connections in the group began over thirty years ago.

The Summit grew out of a concert in Japan called “Live By The Sea” in 1997, which was a commemoration of a concert done ten years earlier in Tokyo called “Live Under The Sky”. At that first concert, as a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of John Coltrane’s passing, I participated in a set featuring Coltrane music which included Wayne Shorter, Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJonette and Richie Beirach. The subsequent DVD and recording of that concert has found its way around the world gaining notoriety in jazz circles.

For the ’97 concert, the chosen artists featured among others Pat Metheny, Christian McBride, Dave Holland and Jack DeJonette. One set, specified to be a Coltrane celebration was to include Joshua Redman, Mike Brecker, myself and Joe Lovano. (Because Joe couldn’t make it in the last moment, George Garzone substituted for him.) The concert was a great success and from that event the organizers of the yearly Red Sea Festival in Eilat, Israel requested something similar for their program the following year. That concert in August, 1998 with Joe, Mike and myself was followed a few months later by several nights at Birdland in New York City, (an engagement which has been repeated yearly since then), a concert of Coltrane’s music at Symphony Space in New York and a performance at the Montreal Festival during a four day program featuring Joe’s music.

The jazz tradition is replete with bands featuring all star groups and highlighting one instrument. It is always a crowd pleaser to listen to different musicians playing the same horn or another instrument. Sometimes these events are publicized as “The Battle of the….” in which the artists are supposedly squaring off at each other. The Saxophone Summit is a modern version of this classic format. And like the older musicians who played standard tunes, blues and rhythm change formats reflecting their roots, we too have a common repertoire described below. The Saxophone Summit is both in the tradition and an extension of it.



In the front line, some words about the first of my saxophone compatriots, Joe Lovano. As is known in jazz circles, Joe’s lineage is pure jazz through his father who played saxophone in Cleveland, Ohio and was immersed in the music. Joe is a true jazzman, meaning he evokes the atmosphere, ethic and ambiance of the culture as well as encompassing the entire history of jazz saxophone. His rhythmic and melodic concepts, technique and tone are totally loose. Joe’s experience in several styles of playing is vast which he brings to fruition when he plays, combined with great passion and an uplifting sense of swing. Personally, Joe is a warm individual with a great sense of humanity, a sly sense of humor and keen perceptive abilities making him one of the easiest people to work and travel with.

(The following paragraph was written before Michael Brecker's passing. AFter his passing, Ravi Coltrane joined the group and in 2014 was replaced by Greg Osby.)

One of my longest musical and personal associations is with Michael Brecker going back to the late 1960s. We first hung out in my loft on West 19th Street in Manhattan during a several year period when endless free jazz jam sessions took place. Eventually Mike took over that loft after I moved to another in the Apple. Studious and serious with enormous discipline, Mike’s playing is of course very familiar to jazz listeners of the past several decades. He has pushed the envelope of modern technique on the saxophone to its utmost while at the same time bears responsibility for at least several of the most well known approaches to playing the tenor in recent times. Mike hits the stage running and always delivers without fail. His tone and time are relentless, pulling the rhythm section with him when he solos. As a person he is warm and gentle displaying an inquisitive bent and a subtle sense of humor that at times borders on hilarity, something seemingly unexpected in a man who appears on the surface to have such a serious demeanor.

I am playing the customary role of de facto leader and organizer, something I have been doing for over thirty years in many different musical as well as educational settings. My job is to get the music on the stage, intact and ready to go recognizing and employing the strengths of the musicians playing. In the case of this dream band, the abundance of talent, creativity and energy is a gift.



Since the choice of musicians for the rhythm section was initially my decision (subject to Mike and Joe’s approval), the results are of interest. All horn players know that in the final analysis we are at the beck and call of the rhythm section which to such a large degree affects our performance. They can either be very involved with the front line or more subservient. At the end of the day it is after all a matter of taste, emphasis and balance, tempered of course by what is appropriate for the style being played. Some players honestly feel that their music is better presented within the context of a rhythm section that functions more in a supportive rather than interactive role. I have always subscribed to the aesthetic that I observed in the Coltrane and Miles Davis groups of the 1960s which was intense rhythm section interaction up to and possibly at times beyond the soloist.

The first matter of business in putting a rhythm section together is the bass/drum team. They should feel comfortable with each other and hopefully have similar reactions to any musical events which might take place. What interests me in pairing Billy Hart and Cecil McBee is the balance they attain between surprise and predictability. It is assumed that a rhythm section will take care of certain responsibilities, depending of course on the exact style and repertoire. Generally the most important tasks are the sustaining of a suitable and steady pulse along with maintenance of the particular form of the material being played. To get the kind of excitement and energy necessary for a group with several major soloists as in the Saxophone Summit, there also has to be a high degree of flexibility and spontaneity. Achieving a balance between these disparate elements is the key. It is the pianist who provides the glue for connecting these elements. With Phil Markowitz’s musical intelligence and experience, he is able to function as the “glue” between this rhythm section and the soloists. And particularly for the Saxophone Summit, the rhythm section must sustain great power and intensity, something they excel in.

Introducing this stellar rhythm section I begin with the senior member, bassist Cecil McBee who was a young man when he came to New York from Tulsa, Oklahoma in the mid-1960s. He quickly found himself in fast company, taking the place of Paul Chambers in the Wynton Kelly Trio with Jimmy Cobb and Hank Mobley, record dates with Wayne Shorter and others as well as a notable tenure with the Charles Lloyd Quartet featuring a young Keith Jarrett. His ability to adapt to different musical situations marked him as special in an era when styles were more homogenous than nowadays. Important contributing factors to Cecil’s special talent are a high level of spontaneity and sense of surprise, in addition to the obligatory skills called upon to be the bassist in a jazz rhythm section. He is an improviser in the truest sense, open to the moment and instant change, with a scrupulous avoidance of clichés as well as a dramatic soloistic voice. On the personal level, Cecil exudes a gentlemanly-like manner. He speaks with a soft tone and a wonderful sense of vocabulary, accompanied by an even tempered demeanor. When it comes to the music Cecil is very exacting and if necessary will request more information on a specific musical point in order to be at the top of his form. McBee is a true veteran.

Pianist Phil Markowitz has been playing with me since 1991 and was a regular member of my group for most of the 1990s in which time we recorded several CDs, both in the quintet and duo format. At present we share teaching graduate level courses at the Manhattan School of Music centered on my book and concepts concerning the use of chromaticism in jazz. Quite simply Phil is one of the best musicians I have ever encountered. His knowledge is vast with a technique and sense of swing that are impeccable. As well, he is a consummate composer. You couldn’t ask for more on the piano. Phil knows the value of leaving space, a crucial aspect for accompanying three major soloists. Accompanying such distinct styles is a formidable challenge, let alone soloing himself several times a set. With perfect pitch and vast experience gained through playing with the likes of Chet Baker and other masters, Phil is the right man for the job. As a person, he is a complete gentleman who travels easily displaying a fine sense of humor and great diligence concerning the musical job at hand.

The engine that drives this group is master drummer Billy Hart. To my mind the sound of the Saxophone Summit is due in large part to Billy’s incredible sense of drama, use of color and boundless energy. He knows how to build tension while at the same time constructing a framework for each soloist. When a group creates not only great music on the technical level but also a strong story line, the listener is drawn in on a deeper level. Since drums are so central to the sound of a jazz group, a band’s ability to build drama and excitement is to a large degree dependent upon the drummer’s abilities and directives. Through his exquisite sense of color by use of several well chosen cymbals, a variety of textural devices and unending rhythmical creativity, Billy is the supreme dramatist. This in my opinion separates him from other equally competent drummers. When Billy Hart is given what I refer to as a “green light” meaning no holds barred, there isn’t any limit to his capabilities and the magic he brings to a group’s sound. There are times in jazz when the drummer must accede to the wishes of a leader who may have an agenda or a preconceived notion as to how the music should sound. There are also fine improvisers who desire primarily a well played and stable background for their excursions. This is something that all drummers are aware of when they are in the role of sidemen, but in the Sax Summit there are no such constraints on the rhythm section. Billy’s playing is indispensable to the success and sound of the group.

But great music is more than the craft alone. There is a place and need for something beyond words that propels excellent musicianship into the realm of art. The word “spiritual” or expressions to that effect are routinely used to describe this aspect. To achieve it necessitates an extra special force which can at times emanate from one musician, to be extended and hopefully magnified by the rest of the group. To my mind, Billy fulfills that function in the Saxophone Summit. This is something that I have been aware of for some time since he was a member of my group ”Quest “ for nearly ten years during the 1980s. When Billy played with Herbie Hancock in the early 70s Swahili names were bestowed upon all the members by the leader. Billy’s name in Swahili is “Jabali” which means moral authority. (That is how many musicians in the world refer to him both professionally and personally by the way.) For me this designation is very appropriate. Billy carries within him a wisdom and deep ecumenical spirit that is among the most developed I have experienced in my life. Aside from my father’s quiet form of sprituality, the deepest force I have personally felt in this way was in the presence of drummer Elvin Jones whom I played with for several years in the 1970s. Billy is on that level. He possesses an uncomplicated, yet deep core of beliefs and connectedness to the spiritual realm that is very deep. This power is what I feel in his playing, something which affects everyone in his presence. Such is the power of Jabali Billy Hart and it is an honor to be on the stage with him. He makes all the difference.



It is Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) tours that immortalized what musicians have been doing for centuries all over the world which is getting together to play, in what we call in jazz the jam session. This format not only serves the listener who receives a smorgasbord of improvisational delights, but also the musical community is positively affected by incorporating the oral tradition in an organized and coherent manner. The tenets of the elders are passed down to the young through a combination of two of the most basic human instincts, competition and camaraderie. If the musicians are peers as in the Summit, there is the opportunity to be aware of what your contemporaries are playing on the same material that oneself is involved with. In the casual atmosphere of the jam session (or as well the more intense nature of a “cutting session” where the musicians are actively attempting to top each other), musicians demonstrate their best abilities to everyone’s delight, inspiring and raising their own status among the immediate and sometimes far flung community. In the process, musical relationships are established and strengthened. A musician may leave a jam session feeling inspired by the creative energy while at the same time sobered through hearing what others are playing and inventing.

Therefore, the “Battle of the Saxophones” or “Drums” or whatever instrument is a time worn tradition (which by the way was excellently depicted in the Robert Altman movie “Kansas City”). An audience that comes to hear the Saxophone Summit “do battle” will not be disappointed in these expectations. But Mike, Joe and I are attempting more than that. Certainly the group is at times three separate quartets when each of us solos. But there is also a great deal of group playing, albeit not in the orthodox sound that jazz listeners are accustomed to, meaning horns harmonizing on traditional voicings and backgrounds.

One of our main models is the late Coltrane period, when John employed several horns in free group improvisations sparking an unbelievable intensity. So aside from the soloistic flights of the three of us, there is the equal if not stronger aspect of the horns improvising together. Therefore the intensity and dynamics of a Saxophone Summit performance does often reach the upper range for extended periods. Each set also includes at least several solos by the rhythm section, all spectacular in their own right.

The repertoire for the group has evolved a great deal over the years. Beginning with our first gigs playing standards, by 2003 we were incorporating Coltrane compositions such as the “Meditations Suite” and several rarely performed ballads like “Dear Lord”, Expressions”, “Peace on Earth”, along with originals from the three of us and pianist Markowitz. We try to achieve a balance between straight ahead jazz a la “tenor battle”, rubato free playing, group improvisations, time/no changes formats and modal vamps. We have also incorporated into to the set different colors by using various horns and world instruments. Mike enjoys playing (and has been studying) a flute of Balkan ancestry, the kaval that has a breathy sound as a result of being played out of the side of the mouth. Joe has been playing alto clarinet, a Hungarian instrument called the tarogato, while I use an Indian bamboo flute along with the soprano and tenor. Between the diversity of repertoire and instrumental colors a typical Saxophone Summit set offers a lot of variety for the listener.

Both recordings on the Telarc label "Gathering Of Spirits" and "Seraphic Light" reflected this repertoire.("Seraphic" also features Randy Brecker on a tune dedicated to his brother.) The third recording on Artist Share titled "VIsitation" (2014) features one tune by each member and tilts towards a freer concept with a surprisingly great deal of lyricism and a flowing, rubato atosphere. 

The audience reaction in general is invariably quite interesting. Of course there are expectations due to the high visibility of Mike and Joe’s work over the years as well as the expected “battle” atmosphere of three horns together. Often at the beginning of a performance I sense a bit of shock at the intensity that the group generates from the start.  But as the variety and honesty of the music become apparent, the reaction is more of awe and respect. The public truly has an unexpected musical experience that in this day and age does not happen too often. I expect that this group will be playing together over many years.

To bring it up to the current status, as mentioned above, after Michael Brecker's passing, Ravi Coltrane joined up for several years. In 2014, changes were made and alto master Greg Osby joined up and added his own unique voice to the mix.

Saxophone Summit with Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane, Dave Liebman,
Saxophone Summit
Saxophone summit with Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane, Dave Liebman, Cecil McBee, Phil Markowitz, Billy Hart