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Soprano sax


Nate Dorward
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A general question, in two parts:

1) why do 90% of sax doublers sound rotten on soprano?

and

2) why do they nonetheless insist on playing it?

I ask this after trying to pen a review of an album that would basically be pretty nice if it weren't for the leader's completely unappealing screech on the soprano. And at least he's playing in tune, unlike some other recordings I've heard lately.....

There are some pleasant exceptions to the rule (most recently, among discs I've reviewed, Andrew Rathbun & Geof Bradfield--tenor players who sound great on the small horn too). But not enough!

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Who do you think sounds good, historically, and what are the qualities that both appeal and repel you?

The soprano, as a smaller instrument, has less (or, at least, more immediately obvious) tolerance of embouchure & breathing variances, just as alto has less than tenor. Some players work with this as a tool for expression, some exploit it "as is" and use it as their "natural" sound on the instrument, and some just don't give a damn, figuring that, hey, it's soprano, and that's all that counts.

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Bechet, Lacy, Lucky Thompson, Roscoe Mitchell, and Bill Kirchner are five that come to mind -- a very mixed bag to be sure. Bechet and Roscoe just gorilla their thing(s) out of the instrument; Bechet's thing might seem to have more to do with the instrument itself than the way Roscoe turns it into a blowtorch, but then Roscoe on soprano is certainly distinguishable from Roscoe on alto. (BTW, I should also mention Johnny Hodges, who was of course inspired by Bechet and who gave up the horn in the early '30s, but boy did he sound good.) As different as Lacy sounded from Bechet, he was akin to him in that the musical daemons of both men virtually required the soprano for their expression ("virtually" because Bechet also was a great clarinetist, but his approach on clarinet was close to his approach on soprano). Thompson and Kirchner are similar too in that they both more or less tame the beast, make it roll over on its belly and purr. In their hands, the soprano is still a soprano, but it's never nasal, or recalcitrant, or honky, and they can make the topmost notes sing and soar. Also, they have (as the others I've mentioned do in their ways) genuinely soprano-ish ideas.

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Someone said to play Johnny Hodges lps at 45 rpm and..VOILA ...instant Bechet. For the most part this works.

Just to spice this conversatiion up a little....I heard an interview on the radio with Gerry Mulligan where he out and out said Coltrane was "terrible" on soprano. He loved him on tenor, but ...soprano?

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For what little it's worth, the only soprano I can stand much of (and I have to be in the right mood at that), is Wayne with Miles circa '69/'70 - and specifically live recordings from that era. (Wayne's soprano work in the studio doesn't do that much for me either.)

Just ain't a horn I've ever dug much - sorry.

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Well, Coltrane's soprano always struck me as the work of the left hand, too.

As for soprano heroes: the specialists above all: Bechet & Lacy. Lol Coxhill too (though not all of his work--it does seem rather variable). -- Of doublers: Evan Parker & David Liebman (though both of them could be called "specialists" too, in that large parts of their careers have been spent focussing on the soprano). & yes Roscoe Mitchell & Lucky Thompson--lovely soprano track on Lucky Strikes ("In a Sentimental Mood" IIRC?). Maybe a special mention for the members of ROVA is in order too (& they come out of Lacy, by & large, I think)--including Ochs' sopranino (listen to Fly Fly Fly for a great example).

Jim--what I guess just annoys me is thinness & acridness of sound, & the impression that the player is largely just playing the soprano for "variety" or because he likes Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" or something. & pitching problems are really aggravating too. Not to mention persistent flubs! -- & on the other hand I've come across a lot of recordings where the "personality" just seems to disappear on the instrument, even when it's technically adept--the player sounds fine on tenor, & on soprano he/she just becomes glib.

& there are some real crimes committed on the instrument by "free" players (anyone heard the new Eddie Gale Vision Fest disc? There's some excellent stuff on there--I'm fond of John Gruntfest's alto work--but there's one track with two soprano saxes which is unbearable).

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Reading this thread and thinking of my main preoccupation, Ronnie Ross, it's perhaps a little strange that there is no instance of him playing soprano sax as far as I know. He started on alto, took up tenor and clarinet, then baritone became his main. He also played flutes, alto clarinet, bass clarinet. Perhaps he just didn't like the soprano.

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...(BTW, I should also mention Johnny Hodges, who was of course inspired by Bechet and who gave up the horn in the early '30s, but boy did he sound good.)...

Larry, in fact Hodges gave up the soprano on 1940. Legend says that Ellington loved its sound but refused Hodges’ demand that his stipend be doubled for playing it as well as the alto.

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Someone said to play Johnny Hodges lps at 45 rpm and..VOILA ...instant Bechet. For the most part this works.

...

From Downbeat (June, 1962)

Double Play: Carney to Hodges to Ellington

By Don DeMichael

...But it was Hodges who absorbed Bechet into his playing. For example, Hodges' alto solo on his small-band recording of "Dream Blues," made in 1939 and reissued last years on an Epic LP, if played at 45 rpm instead of 33-1/33 sounds like Bechet's soprano.

"I had quite a few of his riffs," Hodges said, smiling. "Quite a few of his pets. My pets too. Used to nurse him."

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Zoot Sims and Budd Johnson also played soprano quite well. Jane Ira Bloom also gets a sound on the instrument that is quite listenable.

Bechet, Lacy, Lucky Thompson, Roscoe Mitchell, and Bill Kirchner are five that come to mind -- a very mixed bag to be sure. Bechet and Roscoe just gorilla their thing(s) out of the instrument; Bechet's thing might seem to have more to do with the instrument itself than the way Roscoe turns it into a blowtorch, but then Roscoe on soprano is certainly distinguishable from Roscoe on alto. (BTW, I should also mention Johnny Hodges, who was of course inspired by Bechet and who gave up the horn in the early '30s, but boy did he sound good.) As different as Lacy sounded from Bechet, he was akin to him in that the musical daemons of both men virtually required the soprano for their expression ("virtually" because Bechet also was a great clarinetist, but his approach on clarinet was close to his approach on soprano). Thompson and Kirchner are similar too in that they both more or less tame the beast, make it roll over on its belly and purr. In their hands, the soprano is still a soprano, but it's never nasal, or recalcitrant, or honky, and they can make the topmost notes sing and soar. Also, they have (as the others I've mentioned do in their ways) genuinely soprano-ish ideas.

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As Jim said, all you soprano haters: check out Barney Wilen! One prime example is on Blakey's "Les liaisons dangereuses" soundtrack. Now there's a sax player who sounds good on all four main saxes!

Of course it's still the tenor I like most, but he kills on soprano!

I never developped such negative feelings for soprano in general, but I can imagine why others would... Lucky T is one of my favourites, for sure (yes, it's "In a Sentimental Mood", btw, one of three or four soprano tunes on that terrific album). Also Lacy (and then don't forget Steve Potts was a good soprano player as well), Shorter (though him I can't always take), Bechet of course, Hodges (seems he wanted more pay, for doubling but the Duke thought alto/soprano, who cares, it's all saxophone... so he gave up playing it on records).

I don't know if anyone here's familiar with swiss saxophonist Christoph Gallio. He's been leading his "Day & Taxi" trio for years now. He's a great, probably Lacy-influenced, soprano and alto player. Nate, if you ever get a disc of his for review, give him a chance! (He's got his own label, Percaso, where most of his discs appear.)

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My recollection is that "Blue Goose" (1940?) was the last commercial side that Hodges recorded on soprano sax. Here's something from Steve Lasker that I found on line that suggests that he played it into 1941:

>>>>

When did Hodges lay down his soprano sax?

04/1 DEMS 14

See DEMS 03/3-20/2

Sjef Hoefsmit cites "after 2Nov40." While this is the date of the last known recording of Hodges playing soprano, he also played it in 1941 during the run of "Jump for Joy." George T. Simon's review of that show for "Metronome" (Oct41, p20) notes that "Hodges came through with some marvellous soprano saxing" on Shh! He's on the Beat! (Simon's review is reprinted, without attribution, in Ken Vail's "Duke's Diary Part One" on page 202.)

Steven Lasker

>>>>

...(BTW, I should also mention Johnny Hodges, who was of course inspired by Bechet and who gave up the horn in the early '30s, but boy did he sound good.)...

Larry, in fact Hodges gave up the soprano on 1940. Legend says that Ellington loved its sound but refused Hodges’ demand that his stipend be doubled for playing it as well as the alto.

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Bob Wilbur also has always played soprano well.

Zoot Sims and Budd Johnson also played soprano quite well. Jane Ira Bloom also gets a sound on the instrument that is quite listenable.

Bechet, Lacy, Lucky Thompson, Roscoe Mitchell, and Bill Kirchner are five that come to mind -- a very mixed bag to be sure. Bechet and Roscoe just gorilla their thing(s) out of the instrument; Bechet's thing might seem to have more to do with the instrument itself than the way Roscoe turns it into a blowtorch, but then Roscoe on soprano is certainly distinguishable from Roscoe on alto. (BTW, I should also mention Johnny Hodges, who was of course inspired by Bechet and who gave up the horn in the early '30s, but boy did he sound good.) As different as Lacy sounded from Bechet, he was akin to him in that the musical daemons of both men virtually required the soprano for their expression ("virtually" because Bechet also was a great clarinetist, but his approach on clarinet was close to his approach on soprano). Thompson and Kirchner are similar too in that they both more or less tame the beast, make it roll over on its belly and purr. In their hands, the soprano is still a soprano, but it's never nasal, or recalcitrant, or honky, and they can make the topmost notes sing and soar. Also, they have (as the others I've mentioned do in their ways) genuinely soprano-ish ideas.

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My recollection is that "Blue Goose" (1940?) was the last commercial side that Hodges recorded on soprano sax. Here's something from Steve Lasker that I found on line that suggests that he played it into 1941:

>>>>

When did Hodges lay down his soprano sax?

04/1 DEMS 14

See DEMS 03/3-20/2

Sjef Hoefsmit cites "after 2Nov40." While this is the date of the last known recording of Hodges playing soprano, he also played it in 1941 during the run of "Jump for Joy." George T. Simon's review of that show for "Metronome" (Oct41, p20) notes that "Hodges came through with some marvellous soprano saxing" on Shh! He's on the Beat! (Simon's review is reprinted, without attribution, in Ken Vail's "Duke's Diary Part One" on page 202.)

Steven Lasker

>>>>

Thanks for bringing that DEMS article. I had read it but forgot it.

Edited by EKE BBB
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I agree entirely in that I wish that the soprano was played less by accomplished tenors and altos. I also don't see the point.

I even wish that Bechet would have played more clarinet. I like his clarinet as much as his soprano, maybe even more.

Modern parallel: Greg Osby.

He doubles on soprano and clarinet from time to time. I really love Osby's clarinet playing (as much as any player I can think of -- perhaps because he sticks to the lower register most of the time), and every time he plays soprano, I wish he chosen clarinet instead (or better yet, alto clarinet!!). He's a pretty good Soprano player, but the instrument just isn't my cup of tea.

(FWIW, I think Osby's clarinet playing is far superior over Don Byron's -- but that's a whole nother topic right there.)

Edited by Rooster_Ties
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and then don't forget Steve Potts was a good soprano player as well

Why "was" UBU? STEVE POTTS is still alive and kicking in PARIS (at least every week or so in "Les Sept Lézards).

And it'll be fair to add to the bunch of "sopranists" ANTHONY BRAXTON, don't you think?

Edited by P.L.M
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Guest akanalog

on the back of joe zawinul's self-titled LP, there is a quote from miles davis saying something like "dig the pure black sound of the soprano saxaphone".

i never would have thought about it racially except for reading this davis quote and wondering what he meant. so please do not take offense to my race-related comment. i am simply responding to the miles davis quote and my thoughts on it and my thoughts are that when i think of a soprano saxophone i think of someone like eddie daniels (does he even ever play soprano?) prancing around with a towel around their neck and playing annoyingly piercing high notes which would be a very white sound. or of someone like mike brecker playing a lyricon in 1987ish while some douchebag twiddles on a guitar synth. that is the image i have.

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and then don't forget Steve Potts was a good soprano player as well

Why "was" UBU? STEVE POTTS is still alive and kicking in PARIS (at least every week or so in "Les Sept Lézards).

And it'll be fair to add to the bunch of "sopranists" ANTHONY BRAXTON, don't you think?

Sorry, I mis-typed! I am well aware that Potts is alive! I haven't made my way into the Braxton universe yet, but I know some day I will, so I cannot judge that yet...

Don Rendell has just been mentioned, and his soprano playing is very good, indeed!

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Don Rendell has just been mentioned, and his soprano playing is very good, indeed!

Yes King Ubu - I was thinking of his soprano playing on the Rendell/Carr LPs, which is very fine indeed. Lovely clear tone he gets.

He plays some soprano on that Carr/Rendell/someone else Universal reissue as well, doesn't he? "Greek Variations" is the title, can't remember who the headliners are.

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