Music: Serious Sax

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When Belgian Instrument Maker Adolphe Sax stuck a reed into a conical brass tube and patented the hybrid in 1846, he contributed a new instrument to the military band. In time his saxophone traveled across the Atlantic, became a mainstay of jazz. But the saxophone has always had its strict classical disciples. Last week one of the best and most influential of them, France's Marcel Mule, made his U.S. debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and convincingly demonstrated just how good the serious alto sax can sound.

Saxophonist Mule chose for his debut program the works of two contemporary French composers—Jacques Ibert's Concertino da Camera and Henri Tomasi's Ballade. What the audience heard was an open, evenly controlled sound that could sing with a clean vibrato or a finely trimmed staccato, swell robustly and solidly with no trace of the breathy "air sound." Under Mule's scurrying fingers, the saxophone sometimes took on the quick sheen of strings, or the water-clear inflections of the flute, or the warm quality of the bassoon. Gone were the wah-wahs and wobbles, the slithers and wai.s of the pop saxophonist.

Jazzmen scorn most classically trained sax players, but frequently dig Mule. Says the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Paul Desmond, a brilliant alto-sax artist: ''He has the quality of purity. He's made the sax sound good, which no other legit sax player has done." In the 19203, onetime Schoolteacher Mule served in the Garde Républicaine. which has France's finest military band. He studied the few orchestral works for saxophone then at hand, including Richard Strauss's Domestic Symphony, Bizet's L'Arlésienne. After a brief flirtation with jazz. Mule formed a serious saxophone quartet "for which there was no music."

Although a few composers, among them Ibert, Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud, have since written for the saxophone, serious Saxophonist Mule, 56, still feels like a man without a musical country. It pains him to hear of abuses such as those practiced by the rock 'n' roll players who put chewing gum in the sax to dull its glorious tone. Mule notes sadly that even at the Paris Conservatory, where he is professor of saxophone, most of his students graduate into jazz or military music. "I have one mission in life," he says. "That is to make people take the saxophone seriously. It's time they discovered the nobility of this spoiled instrument."