When you think of brass instruments such as trumpets, saxophones, trombones, etc. the genres most associated with them are jazz/blues, and classical. Although they’re featured most often in these genres, they aren’t holding the instruments hostage, refusing to let them branch out. Sometimes, you can find them in other genres, even ones that you never expected them in. I came up with this idea when the first song on this list came up, and I thought to myself, Wow, I love when they throw in that saxophone. That got me thinking. There had to be more songs on my playlists that did the same. Thus, the idea of brass outside of jazz was born. This is a list more personal to me, so I’m sure there are a lot more out there, but I wanted to dig into some of the “unexpected” genres. If you’re not much of a jazz or classical person, but you love a good saxophone solo here and there, then I’ve got some great songs for you. Join me as I recommend to you some tunes that feature brass instruments such as saxophone or trumpet that are NOT jazz or classical songs.
1. “Without You” – Grayscale
Genre: pop punk/emo
This is the song that inspired this whole post, so if you check out just one of these songs, make it this one. Grayscale has gone on record saying “We’re a band that prides itself on writing rock songs, pop songs, ballads, everything. But musical freedom comes into finding the balance between all of them” (Source). When you look at the previous work of Grayscale, you wouldn’t think they’d be the type to add big instrumentation to any of their tracks. But they surprised everyone with “Without You” which features explosive saxophone work that flows in a smooth solo that fits perfectly. It being the title track of their 2021 album Umbra, it definitely got listeners’ attention. Although it surprised me, it seems it was inevitable they’d explore instrumentation like this. Singer of the band Collin Walsh has said, “Nick and I played jazz drums for our years before we played rock drums. Andrew grew up playing in church, playing gospel, playing blues, all very traditional styles to play…So it wasn’t a matter of if. It was a matter of when” (Source)
Check it out!
2. “Who Can It Be Now?” – Men at Work
Genre: new wave
This Australian new wave band is so fascinating to me because they have such a cool and unique sound that’s different from what I think of as "new wave." “Who Can It Be Now?” is not their only song featuring saxophone, but it’s definitely my favorite that features it. Greg Ham is credited throughout the entire album Business as Usual for saxophone, keyboard, and flute, and I love what he does on this hit. If you’re familiar with their other hit, “Down Under” then you’ve heard his flute work too.
The music video is especially cool to watch in the beginning when Men at Work member Greg Ham plays the sax as he goes to knock on singer Colin Hay’s door. The saxophone featured in this is so essential to the song. This song wouldn’t be so catchy and powerful without that selection played after Hay sings “Who can it be now?” I’ve loved this song since I was a kid, and I used to pretend I was playing the sax parts with my dad. If you haven’t heard this song, you’ll definitely want to give it a go. You won’t regret it.
3. “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” – Run the Jewels, EI-P, Killer Mike
Genre: hip hop
I really wanted to see if I could find a saxophone being used in a hip-hop song, and I found one! I’m sure it’s not the only one, and I did find a few by other artists that sampled jazz songs, but few with actual playing. This Run the Jewels song has an underlying saxophone throughout the song, and then 4 minutes in, you get to sit back and listen to a great solo while the lyrics to the song all sink in. Of all their albums, it appears this is the only one to use a tenor saxophone, and I think it’s a great addition to the song. The tenor saxophonist credited on this track is Cochemea Gastelum, and he does a great job.
4. “Saddam A Go-Go” – Gwar
You get to hear the horns right away in this Gwar song. The opening track of their 1994 album, This Toilet Earth, features saxophone, trumpet, and trombone. They start off the beginning, but they are also featured throughout the zany song. Compared to previous albums, the music and artwork more almost cartoonish, and the horns in this song only feed into that. But it’s still a well-loved album and song. It’s a little goofy but a fun listen.
5. “Flashlight” – The Front Bottoms
Genre: indie, rock
This indie rock band from New Jersey has my respect because I feel that so many bands coming out of the 2010s were inspired by their whiny way of singing (that’s no hate, I love the whine). “Flashlight” comes off the band’s self-titled debut studio album from 2011. This album was a combination of two EPs (one released and the other in progress), and features Ciaran O’Donnell on the trumpet. His contribution takes the chorus of “Flashlight” to another level. I love the trumpet parts of this song, and it pairs so well with Brian Stella’s voice. Check out the black-and-white music video.
6. “Level of Concern” (Live from Outside Version) – Twenty One Pilots
While album versions of Twenty One Pilots songs don’t always have obvious brass instrumentation, seeing their live performances is a whole separate experience. On tour, they have a band with them on stage including bassist Skyler Acord, keyboardist/guitarist Todd Gummerman, keyboardist Paul Meany, guitarist Dan Geraghty, and trumpet player Jesse Blum. In 2020, the band released a song about the pandemic called “Level of Concern.” To promote it, Twenty One Pilots appeared on Jimmy Fallon, virtually of course. Members Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun were joined by their touring band, but virtually and apart, in their own backyards. This was one of the first moments fans got to see the normally two- person band have more instrumentation and assistance. Their trumpeter Jesse Blum really shows off his talent in this version. I’d like to show a clip from the show but since I can’t find one on YouTube, you’ll just have to settle for this photo.
Check out the song:
7. “Lost in Paradise” – ALI Ft. AKLO
Genre: Japanese hip hop/funk
I have to give a special shoutout to the anime Jujutsu Kaisen for exposing me to this incredible song. This song is used for the end credits of the show. It’s so upbeat and positive, it can be a little jarring given the anime’s subject matter about curses and sorcery. But it’s incredible and makes you want to dance. It brightens you up by the end, that’s for sure. There’s a great saxophone solo in this song done by Yu Hagiwara that you have to listen to. When it comes to anime themes, you don’t see a lot of jazz influences (one notable exception being the iconic Cowboy Bebop opening). So, aside from being a straight banger, it’s also a one-of-a-kind closing track. You’ll love grooving to this one.
8. “Ex Mørtis” – Ice Nine Kills
The trumpet usage is a little more subtle than the other picks on this list, but I think what little is used adds an extra layer to the song. This Ice Nine Kills song is inspired by the horror movie The Evil Dead and its sequels over time have gotten a cult following for being campy. And this song captures that camp and goofy feel perfectly while still packing a horror punch, much like the film does. The trumpet additions add to the overall production that this song is, and it’s a cool one to listen to even if you aren’t familiar with The Evil Dead.
9. “Best I Can Do” – Misterwives
Genre: indie pop
Misterwives is honestly an underrated group. They’re so good, and lyrically so interesting. Another cool part of this band is that they frequently feature horns. The album that this song comes from features saxophone from Mike Murphy and trumpet from Jesse Blum. If the latter name sounds familiar, that’s because his name popped up just a few songs up, with Twenty One Pilots. Yes, his trumpet work appears twice on this list. He’s just that cool. He was actually with Misterwives until his departure in 2021, right around when he started touring full-time with Twenty One Pilots. “Best I Can Do” from their 2015 album Our Own House is an upbeat high energy song where Blum’s trumpet paired with Murphy’s sax fits perfectly to keep that energy.
I also wanted to include a live performance so you can see what their stage setup is like and how high-energy they are. Check it out.
10. “Just the Way You Are” – Billy Joel
I couldn’t make this list without this Billy Joel classic. This song has been loved for decades, and for good reason because it’s a great song. “Just the Way You Are” was written for Joel’s wife at the time, but these days, it’s used often for father-daughter dances where the lyrics fit in a mostly non-creepy way. The saxophone featured in this song is probably one of the most popular examples of a brass instrument featured in a non-jazz song. The alto saxophonist Phil Woods gets to have a nice solo at about the three-minute mark, and it has a magical feel to it that I love. Check it out!
Before anyone jumps to the comments to tell me that I missed some big ones, I want to include some honorable mentions I enjoy but I decided not to go into detail on the list.
“Careless Whisper” – George Michael (genre: pop)
“Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen (genre: rock)
“Scott Pilgrim vs. My GPA” - Mom Jeans (genre: emo)
I’m happy to see brass instruments used in genres they don’t typically show up in. Musicians are moving beyond the typical four-piece outfits and incorporating more instruments, and I love that. I’m sure there are more out there, and I want to find more, so if you have any recommendations that fit this category, drop them in the comments! And if you’d like to see a part two to this sort of list, let me know!
Written by Kristen Petronio