In our guitar-centric culture it’s easy to forget that the first rock-and-roll instrument was the saxophone. Check out some vintage doo-wop or Louis Jordan for a reminder. Or listen to Deric Dyer and Paul Ahlstrand, Boston-based sax players who’ve kept rock’s fiery spirit alive.
SATURDAY-NIGHT SOUNDTRACK: Star sideman Dyer plays plenty on his own disc.
Both are MVPs, though they operate at different levels. Dyer, a native of Bermuda who’s lived in Medford for 14 years, has spent much of his career touring with Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Bryan Ferry, Andrea Bocelli, and Al Jarreau, among others. Ahlstrand has toured and recorded with a plethora of national blues club and festival acts including Ronnie Earl, Mighty Sam McClain, the Love Dogs, Nicole Nelson, Susan Tedeschi, and Toni Lynn Washington, but he also plays with local rock artists the Rudds, the Family Jewels, and David Johnston. He’s even turned up on the occasional Bourbon Princess gig.
Both Dyer and Ahlstrand have new albums reflecting aspects of their musicianship that their roles as sidemen often conceal. No One’s Sleeping (Del Boy) is Dyer’s second disc, a versatile excursion through rock, soul, smooth jazz, and fusion. The Sunday Hang (Gibraltar), Ahlstrand’s debut as a leader, is a jazz session reminiscent of the late-’50s unhurried “cool” sound tailored by Miles Davis and Chet Baker. Both are playful recordings, though Dyer’s disc is a Saturday-night soundtrack whereas Ahlstrand’s is perfect for Sunday-afternoon cocktails.
Dyer explains that “the goal of No One’s Sleeping is to leave my own stamp on something. When you’re working for different people, wonderful opportunities come your way, but you’re always working toward the betterment of somebody else’s career. So it was time to put out a CD that realizes my own vision.” He’s being modest. Although it’s true that a sideman’s job is making a star look good, his inventive, edgy soloing has always pushed him into the limelight, and that in turn has not only kept him working on A-level tours but made him the envy of plenty of other players.
His first album was far removed from the bright lights of his show-biz world. Never formally released, Heart and Soul was a set of duets with former Tower of Power pianist Nick Milo. Some tracks can be heard at www.dericdyer.com, where No One’s Sleeping is also available.
It might not have been divine intervention, but Dyer was handed his first saxophone by Sister Joseph Anthony of Mount St. Agnes Academy, which needed a saxist in the school band. Over the years he assimilated the playing of heroes like King Curtis, David Sanborn, Junior Walker, Red Psysock, Tom Scott, and Wilton Felder — a who’s who of cool, breathy R&B-infused saxophonists with modernist leanings — into his own fluid style. His musician father also fueled his interest. By age 16 he was playing in Bermuda clubs seven nights a week. In the early ’70s the Boston band American Standard toured in Bermuda, and it recruited him; in ’77 they became Cocker’s backing group. A decade later Dyer survived the most difficult audition of his career and found himself standing on the world’s biggest stages next to Tina Turner. “She’s by far the most exciting artist I’ve seen on stage, let alone been fortunate enough to play with. She can be tough, but there were times watching her perform that I’d become so enthralled I’d almost forget to play.”
He plays plenty on No One’s Sleeping, putting a deep, warm tone in the service of the melody of the soul nugget “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination,” and he spars briefly with guitarist Kevin Barry before getting to the heart of an instrumental version of Al Green’s “I’m Glad You’re Mine.” His variation on “Nessun dorma,” which he first heard Aretha Franklin perform, is the centerpiece; it’s followed by the up-tempo R&B chestnut “Use Me” and then “Pocket Change.” The latter is the first of his own compositions that he’s recorded, and it fits comfortably with the rest of the set’s soulful vibe.
“I’ve been very lucky in my career, and there are some very basic rules that have always served me well. Talk to people and try to connect with them not because of what they can do for you but in a genuine way. Just be honest and fair. And don’t be afraid to move on. I’ve been in situations where I’ve moved on from a band and it wasn’t in my best interest financially, but it closed one door so another could open. As I said, there’s a lot of luck involved, and living this way helps prepare you to receive it when it comes.”
Like a 1950s session for Blue Note, Ahlstrand’s The Sunday Hang was recorded in one day, live in Brookline’s Rear Window Studios. Six of its eight tunes are Ahlstrand originals, and like a good old-school bandleader he gives plenty of solos to pianist Ryan Claunch and bassist Jesse Williams, and drummer Dave Mattacks gets opportunities for dramatic percussive punctuation. The Dorsey Brothers break-up ballad “The Night We Called It a Day” is a beautiful highlight, with Ahlstrand’s tone and slow, breathy blowing striking the perfect “blue” notes — even cracking a bit with the emotional tenor of the tune.