Heinz Sauer
The Big Sound

Heinz Sauer, a master of tenor saxophone.
Heinz Sauer, a master of tenor saxophone. | Photo (detail): ACT Records / Anna Meuer

Actually, he has celebrated more Christmases than birthdays, says Heinz Sauer. Anyway, the number 80 to his mind is no reason to celebrate. The jazz world sees this differently. For it, the tenor saxophonist is one of the great stylists of the present day.

It is not easy to have a conversation with Heinz Sauer. It takes times until the artist, born on Christmas Day 1932 in Merseburg an der Saale, sets aside his gruff monosyllables, until his thoughts begin to flow and he opens himself up to his interlocutor. Empathy is demanded, flexibility and the capacity to take conversational detours. But then you have a chance to find a path through the rough surface into Sauer’s personality. And there you discover a multi-faceted, many-layered human being who meets the world with sometimes sharp-tongued, sometimes mischievous humour, full of a deep intelligence and possessed of feelings whose critical empathy is reflected in the particular intensity of their musical expression.

The music journalist Hans-Jürgen Schaal once described the saxophonist as ‘the anti-Doldinger’. And in fact already in 1956, when the then still baritone saxophonist gained first place at the Düsseldorf Amateur Jazz Festival, his virile playing and its expressive instrumental tone had about them nothing obliging, nothing that curried favour with the audience, nothing that might have later ensured him commercial success.

The Frankfurt way of jazz

Sauer is a late starter who, like many of his generation, learned to played first baritone and then tenor saxophone only through his own autodidactic efforts. Although he already came into contact with jazz in destroyed post-war Frankfurt, after grammar school he began studying physics before, in the mid-1950s, he finally decided to become a professional jazz musician. ‘At the time’, recalls Sauer, ‘jazz was protest music. We played against the older generation: against the middle-class camp and the old Nazis who had let the cities be blown to bits in the war. Then, too, Frankfurt was in the American occupation zone – with all the many army bands. I was then already a fairly aggressive type. I was therefore allowed to play with the Americans, at the jam sessions in an old villa near the Platz der Republik in Frankfurt. There were only black musicians on stage; their self-confident, almost arrogant bearing completely fascinated and inspired me’.

Perhaps that is how Sauer managed a sound on the tenor saxophone that has remained unmistakable throughout his life: tremendous focus, piercing eloquence and rugged phrasing that often blows against the rhythmic flow of the music. In addition, the GIs introduced him to the tradition of swing music from the United States, and Sauer transformed the performances of American contemporaries such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane through his personal expressiveness, continuing the legacy of Lester Young and Ben Webster – as a European jazz musician. And in the 1990s he translated the ‘cry’ of African-American tenorists of the ‘New Thing’ around Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders into his own language – without ever compromising his own identity and integrity.
Heinz Sauer in 2011 with Christof Lauer an the hr-Bigband, source: hr-Bigband / Youtube

The Mangelsdorff years

Between 1960 and 1978 Sauer was a member of the quartet, alternatively quintet, of Albert Mangelsdorff. The relationship between the trombone player and his saxophonist was often difficult, so contrary were their personalities. On the one hand the four years older Mangelsdorff, from a Frankfurt working-class family: calm, gentle, reserved, both as musician and bandleader. On the other hand Sauer, from a middle-class family: often rushing ahead and making no bones about his opinion, constantly and zealously striving after absolute personal expression on his instrument. Yet their totally different characters were the motor from which the Mangelsdorff Band drew its energy for eighteen years and left its mark on the style of improvised music of a European stamp.

Beginning in 1960 and parallel to his part in Mangelsdorff’s band, Sauer also played in the hr Jazz Ensemble, of which he is still a member today. As leader of his own quartet ‘Voices’, however, he released his debut album only in the mid-1970s: ‘Rediscover The Beautiful’. In 1978 he stood on stage at the German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt with his American colleagues Archie Shepp and George Adams and played a thrilling concert, enthusiastically received by the audience. At this time he also met the American pianist Bob Degen, who was living in the Rhine-Main region, with whom a similarly ambivalent musical friendship as that with Mangelsdorff was to bind him in the following decades. Sauer, this tenor saxophonist with the aggressive tone, needs a self-confident, introverted, musician such as Degen who anticipates his style of playing as a counterweight.

Successful present

Even at eighty, Sauer is far from becoming gentle. This may be seen, for example, in his duo with the two-generations younger pianist Michael Wollny, with whom he has played continuously since 2002. Sauer’s ‘cry’ of earlier days is no longer so explosive and extroverted. His art has changed; today it seems to manifest itself more from within – without harsh sound salvos and cascades. Instead he often blows only a single note, kneads and compresses, pulls and stretches it until he has brought to expression precisely the emotion that has its origin deep inside Heinz Sauer. Ultimately, his art is about this reduction to the essential. It is this that Heinz Sauer has always sought and what has made him, in his person and his art, one of the most influential and fascinating personalities of German jazz.

Selected discography

As Leader
Rediscover The Beautiful (Mood), 1976
Ellingtonia Revisited (Bellaphon), 1980
Metall Blossoms (Bellaphon), 1981
Plaza Lost And Found (Bellaphon), 1991
Cherry Bat (enja), 1994
Lost Ends – Live At Alte Oper (Free Flow Music), 1995

With Albert Mangeldsdorff
Tension (Bellaphon), 1963
Now Jazz Ramwong (Bellaphon), 1964
Folk Mond & Flower Dream (Tropical), 1967
Never Let It End (MPS), 1970
Birds Of Underground (MPS), 1973

With the hr-Jazz Ensemble
Atmospheric Conditions Permitting (ECM), 2005
Unauffällige Festansage (Jazzwerkstatt), 2008

With Michael Wollny
Melancholia (ACT), 2005
Certain Beautiy (ACT), 2006
Don’t Explain (ACT), 2012