Best known as the tenor saxophonist of the Saturday Night Live Band, Lenny Pickett is one of the virtuosos of the altissimo register.
The altissimo register is a technique almost seen as a requirement in today’s jazz environment. It’s based on harmonics and enables you to achieve notes above the normal range of the saxophone. For example, it is possible to finger a low Bb (the lowest note on the instrument) and by changing the configuration and position of the tongue in reference to the reed and throat blow the full overtone series of the low Bb (middle Bb, middle F, high Bb, high D, high F, and so on.) This technique can be heard clearly in the well known opening theme to Saturday Night Live.
Lenny says this about his equipment, in response to numerous inquiries: “I play a Selmer Paris Mark VI tenor (circa 1970) with a Berg Larsen 130 over 0 (SMS) mouthpiece and a number 3 Van Doren (blue box) bass clarinet reed.”
Pickett, born in New Mexico in 1954, is competent not only with saxophone, but also with flute and clarinet. After dropping out of high school in Berkeley, he spent a brief period studying under Bert Wilson, but amazingly, other than that instruction is entirely self taught on the saxophone. Not viewed as a traditional jazz player, he is best showcased in short bursts of color bringing the life of his horn to center stage in R&B and rock arrangements. He is well known for his funky style, and his ability to make the sax “scream.”
Pickett played with the Tower of Power horns from 1972 to 1981, and toured the world with the popular group. Tower of Power still tours extensively today, though without Pickett. They released multiple Top 100 albums over the course of Pickett’s career with them. Tower of Power played in many styles, from soul to funk to disco, and Pickett’s virtuoso playing felt at home in all of them.