"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Soprano Sax and Drums Duo: The Sounds of Interstellar Dialogue

The first soprano saxophone and drums recording I ever heard was "Breathe If You Can," an adventurous and hard hitting outing by soprano saxophonist Heath Watts and drummer Dan Prell on Leo Records. It stayed in high rotation on my playlist for several days. I was very intrigued by the great chemistry Heath and Dan had together. After I heard it,  I knew that I one day wanted to do something along those lines.

I then discovered Clangs, a recording by Steve Lacy and Andrea Centazzo on Ictus Records, which was very different from Breathe If You Can. Their interaction on Clangs was more spacious and textual, whereas, the Watts/Prell duo was very edgy and in your face. What both recordings do share, however, is proof that the sax and drums format is not exclusively tenor saxophone domain, which was kind of my impression before discovering these two recordings.

On Saturday, January 16, 2016, at Cornelia Street Cafe, I'm going to humbly throw my hat into the ring and pair up with legendary jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille. Unlike myself, Mr. Cyrille has been quite prolific in the sax and drums format. He’s played duo performances with Anthony Braxton, Jimmy Lyons, Peter Brotznmann, and my man Greg Osby. Each of these encounters resulted in nothing less than astonishing.

So if you happen to be in West Village this Saturday near Cornelia Street, we'd love to have your company. I’ll be going on an adventurous ride the C-Train. 

In closing, here's a short interview with Andrew that appears on the CD, The Albert Ayler Story where he's talking about being possessed by the music. I hope we can get to some of this at The Cornelia Street Cafe. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

JAZZ: A Creative Model for Learning

Until I became passionate about music, I always felt I was a slow learner. I thought that my intellectual lamp burned a 20-watt bulb--a sentiment I'm sure was shared by many of my teachers. In some instances, I was probably viewed as just plain old stupid. My grades all throughout school were unimpressive at best, which matched perfectly with my disinterest in school--even more tragic, my disinterest in learning. Attending school was just a five-day-a-week, an eight-hour-a-day commitment that prolonged my enjoyment of Christmas break and summer.

When I discovered jazz and improvising that all changed. I acquired not only a love for music, but for learning. Even more important, I discovered that they are different approaches to learning.

One insight I gained from my quest to become a skilled improviser, which began when I was in the 8th grade, is that I can accomplish and understand most anything I put my mind to, no matter how difficult the task may seem. Like many young students who are bitten by the jazz bug, it was the first time I practiced my instrument without being told to. I practiced because I was excited about learning, not because I feared the repercussions of not doing well on a test.

Why is this important? When you're incentivized by the love of learning, even when what you're doing is difficult, you won't be easily deterred. You will work at it for as long as it takes to figure it out: hours, days, months, or even years--which is often the case when trying to figure out jazz. In some instances, it's a matter of finding your own unique way of understanding. And this is also very important. In more traditional subjects like math, science and history, students are often motivated by grades, not the love of numbers, or the love of understanding nature and the past. With short-sightedness learning, it skews our ability to see the bigger picture, hence, making us less motivated to go beyond the call of duty.

Had I had the same love for learning when it came to these subjects that I had for jazz and improvising, I would have had an entirely different relationship with hitting the books, as they say. I would have read about history without being told to, or I would have practiced mathematical equations until they became easy, and maybe even fun. I would have studied different types of mathematicians and schools of thought on math until I found something that resonated with me personally--like the way I did with music. I went beyond the Neal Hefti stage band arrangements and discovered Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

When I discovered jazz and improvising, I was inspired not just by the greatness of the music and its players, but my relationship to it, and the small but monumental sense of ownership I felt from finding my own way of understanding it. And this certainly was not the case when it came to more traditional subjects.

My big "aha!" moment regarding learning came when I was in college. My roommate invited me to drive down to Yale University with him one weekend to visit his cousin, who was also our age. What struck me the most about his cousin and her friends was how passionate they all were about learning. They studied tirelessly during the weekend not because they had a test the following Monday, but because it was fun for them. And they conversed about the things they were learning with the same enthusiasm and curiosity than many young people their age do when conversing about current events and tabloid gossip.

Where I went to high school in Hampton, Virginia there were probably a few students like this, but they certainly did not exist in large numbers the way they did at Yale. This experience demystified my idea of the smart person, the natural academic genius if you will. What I discovered was that they were no different than the high performing students at Berklee who could really play. Both achieved exceptional levels of achievement through hard work and an unwavering passion for learning. It wasn't just something they were born with. None of my friends in high school ever discussed anything that went on in the classroom outside of the classroom, unless we were inquiring how each other scored on the test. There was certainly no intrinsic learning taking place. We were mostly incentivized by grades and report cards.

But I'm happy to say that today, even though I'm far passed worrying about receiving traditional grades for my intellectual and creative efforts, I do love learning, and I feel pretty confident that I can conceptually understand most subjects and see their relevance in the larger scheme of life. And it's not that I'm smarter,  I'm just motivated by a more love-of-learning-oriented incentive. More important, even if my understanding is unclear in the beginning, like when I first tried to figure out how to improvise, I now understand that I can examine things from many linear and non-linear viewpoints until I find what works for me. I've discovered that learning does not have to be a one-size-fits-all paradigm. Just as we all talk differently, walk differently, and think differently, it should be no surprise that we all learn differently. And I owe this new understanding to jazz.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Soprano Madness: A Straight Horn Meeting of the Minds

Tenor saxophone-oriented meetings of the minds are a dime a dozen. These types of musical encounters have been documented for decades. From the Lester Young/Coleman Hawkins Kansas City battles; to The Four Brothers with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff; and of course, the infamous Tenor Madness session between Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane--all of which has become the standard by which tenor saxophone battles are measured.

And contrary to popular belief there have been a few meetings of the minds amongst soprano saxophonists. The first being the classic 1987  Live Under the Sky concert, later released as a DVD titled A Tribute to John Coltrane, which featured Dave Liebman and Wayne Shorter on the soprano saxophones, with 1980s jazz icons Richie Beirach on piano, Eddie Gomez on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. This recording is a testament to the undeniable high-energy potential of the soprano, which is probably only rivaled by the trumpet.

Another such famous straight horn encounter amongst fans of the avant-garde is the 1992 recording The Three Blokes, which was recorded live by Jost Gerbers from September 25 - 27, as a part of the Free Concerts series at the Townhall Charlottenburg in Berlin, Germany. This three-night improvisational exchange between Evan Parker and soprano saxophone specialists Steve Lacy and Lol Coxhill certainly proved one thing: The soprano saxophone may not always be ideal as a single lead instrument, but it certainly works well as a part of a straight horn collective. The imperfections seem to compliment each other in a way that other instruments can't.

The Soprano Saxophone Colossus (a name coined by Dave Liebman) is another such meeting of the minds amongst straight horn enthusiasts. This performance took place on December 20, 2015, at The Cornelia Street CafĂ© in the West Village section of Manhattan. It featured Dave Liebman, French saxophonist Michel Doneda, who rarely performs in New York, Tatsuya Nakatani on percussion, one of Doneda’s frequent collaborators, and yours truly.

You might say that this performance had the energy of the 1987 Liebman/Shorter encounter and the enumerable sonic nuances of The Three Blokes, channeled through each of our own unique voices--individually and collectively.

There was no discussion of what we were going to play. In fact, most of what was said before our performance was along the lines of “Nice to finally meet you,” "Glad we’re finally getting a chance to play,” and “How long will you be in New York.” After that, it was pure musical telepathy.

And I’m not sure when, or if ever we will play again. I’m just happy that fate allowed us to meet on that memorable evening.

My 2016 New Year's resolution will be to decipher some of those interesting sounds that Dave and Michel were getting. They were certainly going beyond the original scope of the instrument. I hope to have it figured out before 2017.


P.S. You're about to hear why I called this blog post "Soprano Madness."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Soprano Colossus: Michel Doneda, Dave Liebman, Sam Newsome and Tatsuya Nakatani

"...a master of navigating musical extremes: chaos and subtle nuances, obtrusive noise and beautiful melodies, layered textures and open space--all through the scope of a singular musical vision.  'Free' is not just a musical approach for Mr. Doneda, it is the philosophy by which he lives and embraces life."
  - Sam Newsome, Soprano Sax Talk

French soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda is probably one the most idiosyncratic figures in free jazz--if you can even call him a free jazz player.  What he does is beyond free jazz as a style--sound art is probably more accurate. He has turned the flutter tongue and air sounds into high art. Michel Doneda has gotten to what most only aspire--one's essential self.

A frequent collaborator of a Doneda is percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani. Nakatani is equally innovative. Just like Doneda has redefined the soprano, Nakatani has redefined the role of the drum set. In the hands of Nakatani, the drum set is no longer a contraption for keeping time. He has turned it into a one-man orchestra of sound and texture. This is a perfect match for Doneda's singular yet expansive sonic universe.

On Sunday, December 20 at 8:30 pm at The Cornelia Street Cafe, Doneda, Nakatani, Dave Liebman and myself will convene for a first time gathering that Liebman has appropriately called The Soprano Colossus. 

All of my forays with Liebman at The Cornelia Street Cafe have been nothing short of improvisatory, sonic marathons where everybody comes out on the other side a better person, more enlightened, and a little less afraid of the unknown.  And I'm sure Sunday's meeting will be no less cathartic. 

Below is a repost of an interview I did with Michel that I posted originally Saturday, May 5, 2012. Fascinating words by an equally fascinating artist.

Your musical concept seems to extend beyond you just being an improviser. You’re also a performance artist, where the visual component is just as important as the aural. Do feel this is true?

Since early in my career, I have played and collaborated with artists from other disciplines. First it was actors and poets; then I began collaborating with dancers, painters and filmmakers. It is suffice to say that those experiences are fully integrated into my life and career as an improviser. I’ve also found that playing outdoors in an open space is just as important as playing indoors in enclosed spaces.

Do you feel that being self-taught has enabled you to develop an approach that’s more personal than if you had served an apprenticeship under someone?

Yes, my approach is very personal. Fortunately, I never needed to try and find myself. And even though I’m self-taught, I do not absolutely reject music education. I regard it as a precious treasure in our society. However, for personal reasons it was not for me. It goes without saying that others often revealed themselves as teachers to me, even though I did not realize it at the time. As a result, there are some things I lack. For example, I would have liked to of spent more time studying and playing contemporary music, especially the Giorgio Netti pieces for soprano sax. But I'm constantly learning and moving forward, even though on the horizon I do not always see the finish line. Let me just add that no matter how personal one's approach is, you should always look to play and communicate with others. And this requires reflection, musical exchanges, and personal and interpersonal confrontations.

Have you always played free/improvised music, for lack of a better term? For some players, it’s more of a gradual progression.

I still remember the first sound that I played on the soprano in April of 1968. It was the discovery of this sound that made me want to continue exploring the instrument. There were attempts to play more conventional music. But I never really had the desire and strength to pursue it. Admittedly, each style requires a lifetime.

Are there any recordings of Michel Doneda playing standards?

I have not made any recordings playing jazz standards, but I have recorded two projects playing traditional music. The first was on the Nato record label, a collective album called Flight Sidney. I recorded a theme of Sydney Bechet’s called "Egyptian Fantasy" with drummer Elvin Jones. I had never played that song before and I never played it again.

The second was a record called General Gramophone, which I co-lead with saxophonist Daunik Lazro. We played melodies from India, Eastern Europe, a Lee Konitz tune, and a choro piece. All of this happened back in the late 80s and still remains a rarity for me in my career. However, I do continue to play and study choros (a style of Brazilian popular music from the 1940s), but this only for my pleasure.

Having recorded close to 50 CDs, do you ever worry about repetition? If not, how do you keep it fresh?

My improvisations and recordings are collective processes. By collective process I mean: the decision (making up my mind to do something), the process (the act of doing it), and the organization (the logistics of doing). Even my solo recordings have never been only me making my own decisions.

And I don't talk about the music. I hope this is clear. I just always record music that I want to record. And I’ve never had any producer.

Why did you decided to make the soprano your main instrument? Or as some musicians say, maybe it chose you?

I cannot say why I chose the soprano. There may be reasons--perhaps some unconscious influences. But so far I do not know. However, I do know that the soprano saxophone resonates a particular feeling in my body that I like—both tension and calmness. These are two qualities I cannot separate. I don’t know if this is reason enough to pursue a lifetime of learning. But I do feel that the demand of the soprano is perfect for me.

You have a pretty vast vocabulary of extended techniques. Do you, or did you at one time, spend several hours a day exploring new sonic possibilities on the instrument? And where do you get your inspiration for new sounds?

I spend time with the soprano everyday--as a discipline and for pleasure. My musical inspiration comes from the instrument itself. My musical language results from the dialogue between the instrument and myself. This is why I have no a preconceived notions about "my" music as such. My perception can change with my understanding of the instrument.

And I do not like the term “ extended techniques” because it standardizes an approach that is very personal. In fact, the instrument processes both cerebral and organic musical terrains. And I’m constantly going back and forth between these two poles. Of course, there are technical things to master, but one’s state of mind also grows with this research.

I should also mention this excellent book on “multiphonics” written by Marcus Weiss and Giorgio Netti: Techniques of Saxophone Playing.

Most of the music I’ve heard you play is often sound based and textural. Do you find yourself ever having to balance working on more conventional things like playing chord changes, scales, and line oriented ideas, along with you sonic approach?

I do so much with improvisational music that I find that I have to be fully dedicated to that style of playing. Let me also add that I am fortunate to have many musical partners who inspire me as well as keep me satisfied musically. What I do takes a lot of practice, time and effort. You might say that I have made a commitment to dedicate my life to being a contemporary improviser.

I am not talking only about musical things, but also the organization of my professional life—which means looking for concerts as well as organizing them. Everyday I have to spend time for these kinds of things. It is always a struggle to play this music.

Who are some of your influences on the soprano?

I listen to Sidney Bechet, Bhob Rainey, Steve Lacy, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, Alesandro Bosetti, Marcus Weis, and many others. All these wonderful artists have influenced me throughout my career, and it’s been a pleasure to listen to as well as play with many of them. And let me give you the name of a Japanese shakuhachi player, Watatsumi Do, whose musical expression touches me deeply.

Myself, being someone who has a pretty straight ahead past, I know that most straight ahead players care a lot about pleasing the audience and presenting a well-balanced, varied performance. However, free players, tend to only care about creating an experience for the listener—whether good or bad. Do you agree? If so, do find this to be more liberating or a hindrance?

I see improvisation as a listening experience--an experience that takes place at a certain moment, at a particular place, with a specific group of listeners. For me, all these components are equally important. I'm not trying to control what happens. I just try to make sure to be focused and present so I can make the best of my opportunities. Again, discipline and pleasure.

Even in a free context, do you ever put limits on yourself just to inspire different kinds of ideas?

I am under no mental suggestions before playing. I am prepared to be in attendance at whatever is there in that moment. This way there is always potential, limits, accidents, and most of all, discoveries!

Please join us for what I'm sure to be a memorable experience.


The Soprano Colossus

Michel Doneda, soprano sax
Dave Liebman, soprano sax
Sam Newsome, soprano sax
Tatsuya Nakatani, percussion


Cornelia Street Cafe
29 Cornelia Street
New York, NY
(212) 989-9319


Sunday, December 20, 2015 at 8:30 PM

Monday, November 30, 2015

The University of the Streets Fallacy

Does anybody really ever learn jazz in the streets?

This is a claim made by older musicians when sermonizing to the "privileged" younger generation on how "they" had to learn jazz under much rougher conditions. They were not shielded by the cushy walls of the university classroom. These musical soldiers had to learn to swing on the rough and tough pedagogical pavements of the University of the Streets--so they say.

Let me first clarify that buskers do actually exist. These are musicians and artists who make their living performing on the streets. However, the musicians I'm speaking of aren't referring to anything as tangible. They're referencing some glorified set of conditions where only the bold and strong survived. Like those who say, "I was in Nam."

The truth is that the conditions under which players learned jazz in the 1940s is not much different from conditions under which players learn today--and I'm referring to musical conditions, not social ones. I can't even imagine the emotional wear and tear that living in Jim Crow America must have had on black folks, on and off the bandstand.

Now regarding merely learning to play, there are basically three things you have to do:  (1) You have to study--the gathering of information; (2) You have to listen to recordings and live performances of players with much more experience than yourself; and (3) You have to play with others, either playing sessions or in front of a live audience. The process through which musicians went about doing these things in the 1940s is not that much different than how musicians today go about it.

As far as studying or gathering information, this is done through studying with someone privately or in a master class setting, which is usually held in someone's apartment or rehearsal space, which is inside, I might add. The university setting isn't much different. Most of your training as it pertains to your instrument, is done in a one-on-one setting with a private instructor. And typically your private instructor will teach you knowledge gained from his or her own experiences, and not from this one Jazz Theory Doctrine that many claim that all jazz students learn from. Some of the more common assertions are: "They all sound like they studied jazz from the same book." Or "it's all the same stuff played on different instruments." And there is some ounce of truth to these assertions, but not all of it is due to musicians having learned in the university instead of the streets.

I can certainly understand why many feel that there's a lack of originality in today's musical climate. But I argue that it has anything to do with students having been taught in the university.

This might sound kind of bold, but I think many players subscribe to an aesthetic that I call artistic colonialism. This is a policy or practice of acquiring full or partial artistic control over another person's ideas or musical vision, sharing it with others, and exploiting it economically.

For instance: Many have no problems playing segments of other player's solos during their gigs as a badge of honor or rite of passage--often high five (ing) themselves for having done the deed. We've taking musical practices that ordinarily would be restricted to the practice room, and have now made them a part of our onstage performance. We've all practiced other people's solos. Guilty as charged. That's just a part of the learning process. This is understood. But like our understanding of Las Vegas, we also presume that "What happens in the practice room, stays in the practice room."  Something similar can be seen in reality TV shows, where we've taken very private moments from our personal lives, moments no one is ever supposed to see, and we now bare them to the world in front of a camera.
Musically speaking, people are not only stealing concepts of others but in some cases, they're playing entire solos, note for note. The group Mostly Other People Do the Killing went so far as covering the entire Kind of Blue album, even improvised solos. This sort of thing has a great novelty factor, but little artistic merit. And it proves the points that (1) artistic colonialism is alive and well, and (2) that we have become all too comfortable with filtering our art through this reality-show-type paradigm.

One of the reasons that the they-all-sound-the-same narrative is so pervasive is that many of our role models don't represent the custom of originality that has defined jazz. Much of it has to do with our rush to find jazz stars. We have a tendency to prop up under-developed players as the bearers of the torch whether they're ready or not. There was a time when many of the jazz star types of today who are revered as one of the cats, would have found a home as lead soloists in the Buddy Rich big band or the Maynard Ferguson band—similarly to players like Steve Marcus and Sal Nestico. These guys were not propped up as one of the cats—understandably so. Their musical concepts were built more on flash than vision. They sounded amazing on two choruses of “I Got Rhythm” changes or a 32 bar solo with backgrounds. But their music did not have the depth nor vision to hold one's interest over several recordings. And I'm not here to drag them through the mud. As I said earlier, they were amazing players. I heard them both while still in high school and was completely blown away.

Once I got to college, however, I discovered much younger contemporaries who were paving the way in New York--musicians like Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Branford Marsalis and Kenny Garrett. Their music seemed to be coming from a much deeper place. In fact, I'm not sure if any of them would have shined in the Buddy Rich or Woody Herman bands. Kenny Garrett actually played in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. And I feel many of the other soloists in that band shined much more than him in that setting. However, history has proven that Kenny was going after something a lot deeper than playing in a section offered.

I feel that we have to demand more out of our jazz stars. With success comes responsibility. Even if you're not trying to lead by deliberate persuasion, you are leading by example, just by your mere visibility. We can not continue attaching ourselves to someone else's musical vision and calling it progress. Otherwise, we become musical versions of knockoff bags. The label might say Prada, but it's really made in China.

And as far as learning jazz in the streets, the only thing the streets are good for is finding your way indoors. Unless you are a muralist, stop glorifying having honed your craft in the streets. The truth of the matter is this: If you are in fact in the streets, you're probably not learning to play. My guess is that you're doing everything but.

Throughout history, musicians have made the grave error of glorifying negative behavior, as though it has any positive effects on one's musical abilities. Charlie Parker was not great because he was addicted to heroin; he was great despite being a heroin addict. That was his true genius.

In closing, let me leave you with this: People learn to play in two places and two places only--the practice room and the bandstand. Like having eggs and pancakes for breakfast, some things will never change.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Helpful Hints on Putting Together a Good Set

Putting together a set of tunes to play for a concert can seem as difficult as securing the gig itself. Having led a band at one point or another, most of us can empathize with being backstage and having your band members ask you, "What tune do you want to start with?" Or "what's the first set going to be?"

It seems as though no matter how long you're in the business, or how many gigs you've done, figuring out which tunes to play and what order to play them never gets easier.

I'm far from an expert, but here are a few pointers that I use to make the process a little easier.

1. Start with something that you and your band can sink your teeth into.
I've been in numerous situations where the leader was determined to start with the most difficult tune in the book. Unless the band is well-rehearsed or have been playing the material for awhile, this can be a bad idea for a few reasons. One, the audience does not get a chance to hear the group at their best, which could leave a negative impression; and two, if the performance of the tune does not go well, it could shake the confidence of some of the members of the group.

2. Make sure that the tempo of the first tune is not too fast or too slow
Starting with extreme tempos is uncomfortable for the players and the listeners. It does not allow players to properly sync with each other and it's difficult for the audience to get into a good listening zone for your music.

3. The first tune should represent the group's vision or concept. 
If you have a straight ahead jazz group, don't start with the one free piece in the book, and vise versa. Save the oddities in your book for the middle or at the end of the set.

4. As the leader, make sure you start with something you don't have to read.
I always feel it's good for the leader to be able to observe what's happening on the bandstand, musically and personally. If nothing else to make sure everyone is comfortable. This is difficult to do if all of your energy is going into reading and/or counting.

5. Make sure the first tune isn't too long
It's good to let the audience hear a range of what you do before the middle of the set. This is difficult to do if the first tune lasts for 20-minutes. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

6. Change the instrumentation when possible. 
If you're leading a quartet, having all four musicians play all the time can become predictable. Playing solo, duo or trio can be a welcomed deviation from the norm.

7. Keep the talking to a minimum. 
People go to jazz clubs to hear music, not lectures. An entertaining anecdote to set-up a tune can be a nice transition. For the most part, you just want to give the audience pertinent information: who's playing and what tunes are being played. Talking too much during the set prevents listeners and players from losing themselves in the music.

8. Make sure that you don't play more than two consecutive tunes with a similar feel and tempo. 
Unless you are a trained musician, the subtle differences between tunes can be difficult to detect. This is why it's good to choose material that takes the listener and the music into unique and distinct areas.

9. Plan the set far in advance
Trying to put together a set five minutes before the downbeat can be nerve racking. I would start thinking about what to play as far as a week before. This way you have a chance to weigh the different possibilities. So even if you do put together your set last minute, you will have spent quality time weighing the different tune sequence possibilities.

10. Have more than one tune option ready. 
Sometimes it is difficult deciding between which two tunes to play. Instead of agonizing over them, just have them both ready. Sometimes you have to go with what's inspiring you at the moment.

As I said earlier, I'm far from an expert at this sort of thing. Picking a good sequence of tunes to play is not an exact science. But these aforementioned suggestions can make the process easier. And no matter what order you play your tunes, the most important thing is to have fun playing them.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Lower Register: The Most Neglected Part of the Horn

The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument.
- Steve Lacy

  • Increased sound control in the lower register
  • Increased dexterity in the lower register
  • Increased breath support
  • Increased ability to play at different dynamic levels in the lower register

I’ve often expressed to students the importance of the developing the lower register of the soprano. There’s a tendency to only play in the instrument’s high and middle registers. This is understandable being that they’re the most comfortable parts of the instrument to play in--not to mention that they’re the most practical ranges on the other saxes.

However, on the soprano, the low Bb to low F is actually in the practical range, too, similar to the Bb trumpet. Not to mention that saxophonists often the approach instrument from a non-soprano perspective, causing us to lack the vision to tap into the things that makes the instrument unique.

Three reasons why developing the lower register of the soprano is so important:

1.     You can extend practical range, given you more notes to work with.
2.     You can play in the same transposed range as the other saxophones, particular the alto and tenor. 
3.     You can play with more fluidity in the darkest and warmest part of the instruments

Most saxophonists don’t play melodies using notes below the low F (or F1), which makes sense on the larger saxes. The tenor saxophone, for instance, transposes up a major 9th. That means if you play an F1 on the instrument, it will sound as a concert Eb one octave below—which definitely gets into the muddy range of the piano. And this especially holds true for the bari sax, which transposes an octave and a 6th;  therefore, if you play an F1 on the bari sax, it will sound a concert Ab two octaves below, which is even muddier. However, on the soprano sax, if you play an F1 it will sound the Eb1, which still in the practical range since it’s a minor 3rd above middle C.

Because we don’t typically think of the soprano in terms of transposition, we play it in alto, tenor, and bari sax registers—which, consequently, leaves us always playing in the higher and brighter register of the instrument.. However, if we were to begin playing our ideas from the low Bb, instead of middle Bb, we would find ourselves playing in a register that gives us that same warmth and full-bodied ness as the larger members of the saxophone family.

Because we don’t typically think of the soprano in terms of transposition, we play it in alto, tenor, and bari sax registers—which, consequently, leaves us always playing in the higher and brighter register of the instrument.. However, if we were to begin playing our ideas from the low Bb, instead of middle Bb, we would find ourselves playing in a register that gives us that same warmth and full-bodied ness as the larger members of the saxophone family.

Here’s an except from the book, Conversations, where Steve Lacy gives his view on the bottom register of the soprano:
The main disappointment is that hardly anybody has developed the bottom of this instrument. I must be the only one that’s really opened up the bottom. I’m waiting for somebody else to really have founded something downstairs. That’s perhaps the most interesting part of the horn, the most beautiful part, it’s most pleasant part.

I agree with Lacy in that the bottom is “the most interesting part of the horn.” I’m not so sure it’s the “most beautiful part,” but definitely the warmest and most neglected, second only to the altissimo. In general, this area of the saxophone is not considered part of the instrument's practical range, as I’ve stated earlier--which is understandable with the larger members of the saxophone family; melodies and lines played on those instruments in the lower register tend to sound muddy. On the soprano, however, this “neglected area” has a lot more melodic possibilities.

Let's look at how to tackle this neglected area: 

Suggestion/Exercise #1: I suggest starting with practicing melodies and your musical ideas, using only the notes between Bb1 (low Bb) - Bb2. You’ll need to practice this way for a few weeks to really see results. It's uncomfortable in the beginning, but after a few days you will start to make the necessary embouchure, breathing, and aural adjustment, that will make it feel more natural.

Suggestion/Exercise #2: Another thing I like to do is practice Charlie Parker's tune "Now's the Time" in the key of Eb concert. When I transpose it to the soprano’s key, the melody is right in the very bottom of the horn.

When practicing “Now’s the Time” in this key, here are a few things to pay attention to:

  1. The lower register tends to be sharper than the middle, so make sure you practice it with a tuner.
  2. Aim for the same evenness and clarity that you would have if you played it on the tenor sax and octave above. Look at it from a soprano perspective.

One Lacy tune that I recommend, if you’re looking for an exercise to strengthen your lower register control as well as a cool tune to play is “Blues for Aida”. I’ve heard Lacy play this tune in solo and duo settings with pianist Mal Waldron, a long-time Lacy collaborator. And like most of his compositions, it will pretty much work in any context. This tune is in concert Bb minor, which is C minor in the key of the soprano.  The melodic range of the tune extends from low C to middle C on the soprano.

Blues for Aida

Soprano sax

This tune is loosely based on a five note Japanese scale called the miyako-bushi as shown in Example 1.  This is the scale on which many of the traditional Japanese tunes are built—particularly ones written for the koto.

This scale has a sound that’s very identifiable, exotic and soulful—similar to the blues. The difference being that in the  “blues scale” the essential notes are #9, #11, and b7, whereas the blues notes in the “miyako-bushi” are b9 and b13.

Example 1:  The miyako-bushi pentatonic scale

As shown in Example 1, this penta-tonic is very different from the major and minor penta-tonics found in most Western, Asian, and West African music. You’ll find that the main differences occur between the 1st and 2nd tones, and the 4th and 5th, both spanning the interval of a ½ step. 


Lower Register Studies 1 – 4: The following four (4) exercises focuses on developing the lower register. Each exercise should be practiced using the suggested articulations.

Suggested articulations:

Exercise #1

Exercise #2

Exercise #3

Exercise #4

Here are a few things to keep in mind when practicing these exercises:
  •  Playing these at softer volumes forces you to play with better breath support.
  • Notes in this register tend to be on the sharp side.
  • The notes will often sound very harsh, so try to aim for a middle register smoothness.
  •  It’s good to imagine you’re playing the oboe or trumpet, it will raise your standard for what is an acceptable sound.
  • Aim for the same fluidity that you would in the other registers.                                     

Let me know how they work out. I'm curious to know.


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