At a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert two weeks ago, Wynton Marsalis playfully teased the members of his saxophone section for playing an instrument that was not, in his opinion, as exalted as his own — the trumpet, which goes back more than 1,000 years and is even mentioned in the Bible.
If you ask me, however, Mr. Marsalis was being a bit defensive; he knows darn well that the saxophone and its players have dominated jazz for most of the genre's history. The present day is no exception: During a three-hour period on Wednesday night, I had the privilege of hearing three of the world's outstanding contemporary jazz saxophonists, all with their own ensembles: First was James Carter with his Quintet and a six-piece string section at Carnegie Zankel Hall; then I shot down to the Blue Note for a double-header of Ravi Coltrane and David Sanchez and their respective quartets.
All three players, who were born between 1965 and 1969, came to fame during jazz's so-called "Young Lion" phase of the 1980s and '90s. At that time, record labels and clubs, in search of their own Marsalis-level superstar, began featuring a disproportionate number of 20-something players with highly developed skills roughly in the bebop idiom. Obviously, not all those lions (who are now on both sides of 40) are as prominent as they were back in the CD era, but Messrs. Carter, Coltrane, and Sanchez have all continued to grow as musicians.
Mr. Sanchez, in particular, has come a long way. When he left his native Puerto Rico in his early 20s, he had a good sound on the instrument but seemingly little to say. He also seemed more interesting on his albums than he did in performance, which is a curious state of affairs for a jazz instrumentalist. His current group utilizes a guitar, played by the versatile Norwegian stylist Lage Lund, who is so heavily featured (and rightfully so) that he might as well be a co-leader. The tenor-guitar frontline, which was used meaningfully by Stan Getz and Jimmy Raney 50 years ago and by Harry Allen and Joe Cohn today, is the perfect format for Messrs. Sanchez and Lund, because it gives the group a driving, buoyant sound that never becomes heavy or oppressive.
Now pushing 39, Mr. Sanchez has grown considerably; early on, he was known as the Latin Lion, but he now plays an equal amount of mainstream North American rhythms as well. His late set was highlighted by what he announced was a new original called "Cultural Survival," which had Mr. Lund playing in vague flamenco patterns. The quartet then treated us to "Monk's Mood," rendered somewhat softer than Thelonious himself, reminding us how pretty (if that's not too conventional a word) Monk's ballads can be. The set ended with a Sonny Rollins-ish calypso, which began simply with a short, ascending riff that the two soloists elaborated on at length.
The main attrtibute that Mr. Coltrane shares with his late father, the legendary John Coltrane, is that he appears to be constantly growing; every time I hear him, he sounds different. In the 1990s, his playing reminded me of the late Hank Mobley, but when I last heard him in 2005 and '06, he sounded more like Coltrane senior. This week at the Blue Note, he's got something else going for him.
The quartet is the same as on his most recent album, 2005's "In Flux" (Savoy Jazz), with Mr. Perdomo as well as Drew Gress on bass and E.J. Strickland on drums. Mr. Coltrane's second tune during the late show was that album's opener, "The Message," which, after an outof-tempo intro, segued to a bluesy groove and a riff stated in catchy paired notes, reminiscent of Sonny Rollins's "Pent-Up House." Here, the phrases and lines of the melody ended somewhat abruptly, winding up in unexpected places.
When James Carter plays, he takes us back to the very beginnings of the saxophone, and in the way he spotlights his awe-inspiring, jawdropping technique — often for its own sake, but in a very entertaining way — he reminds me of the great pre-jazz 1920s sax virtuoso Rudy Wiedoeft. All the members of the saxophone family essentially have only two registers, but whether he's playing alto, tenor, or baritone, Mr. Carter always seems to be working some enormous contra-mother horn of his own invention, one that has at least 10 different registers. He plays more notes that aren't actually on the instrument than ones that are, extracts a rich, full sound from the soprano, and gets around the unwieldy baritone sax as if it were a piccolo.
Wednesday's Zankel concert was Mr. Carter's most notable showcase in New York in a while, and in honor of what would have been Billie Holiday's 92nd birthday a few weeks ago, he performed the program that he recorded in 2003 as "Gardenias for Lady Day" (Sony). Curiously, in spite of the presence of a string section headed by the cellist Akua Dixon Turre, Mr. Carter didn't play one super-slow Holidaystyle love song — even though "Out of Nowhere," the title track on his most recent album, shows he can do this capably. Mr. Carter's ballads were just as intense and driving as his up-tempos, and Miche Braden, the female singer he showcased, was more of a belter and a bluesshouter than a balladeer.
Overall, Mr. Carter's presentation was remarkable in how it succeeded in being romantic and postmodernist at the same time. One of his trademark devices is to build to an almost orgiastic level of intensity, but to somehow still keep spinning lines that are melodically coherent and attractive, as he did on "Indian Summer." Victor Herbert never had it so good.
Granted, Messrs. Coltrane, Sanchez, and Carter are perhaps too idiosyncratic to be typical of all the reedmen out there, but their music is a solid indication that the saxophone is a stronger voice than ever in contemporary music. Trumpet players, you have been warned.