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Sam Gendel: Satin Doll review – a searing new language for sax | Music

Sam Gendel plays like a man trying to erase his instrument. The Californian saxophonist – perhaps best-known for his thoughtful collaborations with Moses Sumney and bassist Sam Wilkes – has long been honing slippery improvisations, pitch-bending his harmonies and sliding over rhythms. His latest LP, Satin Doll, is his most fully formed yet and pushes this experimentation to its furthest extreme, his sax sounding like melting wax on his 13 cover versions of jazz standards.

Satin Doll album cover

Satin Doll album cover

The reinterpretation of the standard has long been a key part of jazz’s thirst for reinvention, yet Satin Doll will likely make many purists squirm. Processed and synthesised, Gendel’s sax veers between a vocoder voice and electronic strings: tender like a metallic lullaby on Lester Young’s Stardust, polyglottal and choral on Afro Blue.

The original melodies and movements of these standards can seem buried so far beneath Gendel’s production as to be unrecognisable, but this is the beauty of his work. Recorded live over three days, much like foundational Blue Note or Impulse sessions, Gendel manages to find an entirely new language for his saxophone. His breath is carried into the helter-skelter keys of Latin-jazz number O Ovo, merging with the clave rhythm, and passes through like fistfuls of sand on Miles Davis’s Freddie Freeloader.

Originality lies in the messiness of this new vocabulary – in overheard glimpses of garbled vocals on Glide Mode or in snatches of white noise on Love Theme from Spartacus. Like any new expression, his words may not always be intelligible – but his meaning is deeply felt.

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