Sax to the max

The Massed Sax Orchestra (If they all play different songs at once it would sound exactly like John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space). Photo by Stephen Heath Photography

ABOUT 100 saxophone players will belt out AC/DC’s It’s a Long way to the Top as part of the inaugural WAAPA Sax Festival in Perth this weekend.

The two-day event culminates in a mass sax orchestra playing songs including March by Gustav Holst, the theme to Cinema Paradiso, and a fun arrangement of the aforementioned AC/DC classic with a surprise guest.

The festival is the brainchild of Dr Matt Styles, senior lecturer in saxophone studies at WAAPA, who has been holding an annual ‘massed sax concert’ since 2013.

“The first year we had 45 players, and a few years ago we got up to 146,” he says.

“We’ve had players from all across WA, Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Japan and the US from as young as 10 right up to 86 years young.

“This year I’m going one bigger where I’m directing a festival over two days and two nights where sax players from all across the state meet up to rehearse together then see workshops, demonstrations and performances from the WAAPA classical and jazz sax players and staff, resulting in two concerts.”

Unfairly pigeonholed as an instrument only suited to jazz, Michael Bolton and the prelude to sex scenes in the movies, Dr Styles says the saxophone was originally a classical instrument in the mid 1800s, used in wind and symphony orchestras, and for solo performances.

“The beginning of the 20th century saw it become an instrument that propelled jazz forward and has done so much for this genre,” Dr Styles says.

“What people don’t always realise is that since the mid 1940s, it has been re-emerging as a classical instrument having thousands of pieces written for it in a solo and ensemble context and in a multitude of different settings.

“It is, in my opinion, of the most versatile instruments with an expressive range which is the envy of many.”

In recent years, many music universities have started appointing full-time classical saxophone teachers, including Michael Duke, the first full-time classical saxophone lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

An internationally-acclaimed saxophonist who studied at the famous Berklee College of Music, he’s a special guest at the festival and will be playing alongside Dr Styles and fellow WAAPA lecturer Jamie Oehlers.

“I have seen graduates from my saxophone studio go on to achieve some remarkable things in the music industry, proving to everyone the versatile of the saxophone and saxophonists,” Dr Styles says. 

“Michael Duke ‘s work has been and continues to be an inspiration for everything I do at WAAPA.”

So who are the best sax players of all time?

Dr Styles says the most influential modern jazz sax album is Michael Brecker’s self-titled 1987 release, and in the classical realm he admires lots of players since the 1940s including Marcel Mule, Sigurd Rascher and Jean-Marie Londeix.

“Any album by any of these masters shows the remarkable agility and refinement the saxophone can provide,” Dr Styles says. 

“These artists truly showcase how the saxophone can rival any classical instrument in terms of poise, virtuosity and versatility.”

The WAAPA Sax Festival (May 28-29) includes workshops, stalls and events, and culminates in two concerts on Saturday and Sunday night at the Richard Gill Auditorium in Mt Lawley.

To register for the free afternoon events at WAAPA’s campus in ECU Mt Lawley, and the massed sax orchestra (you have to be playing for at least two years) go to 


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