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

Friday, June 25, 2010

10 Soprano Players I've Checked Out, And Why

Over the years I’ve gone to several sonic sources on the soprano to grab different things, here and there, in my effort to try and create my own original voice. Here are some straight-hornists who have been influential on me.

(1) Sidney Bechet (New Orleans Jazz Soprano): From Bechet I learned how to play with a big, robust sound throughout the entire range of the instrument as well as with a sub-tone, which is very difficult on the soprano. I also learned how to play vertically on the chord changes. Chromaticism wasn’t as popular during Bechet’s time. Players from his era usually played triads and arpeggios with some blues alterations. And improvising using this type of vertical approach also helps you to learn how to project on the instrument.

(2) Lucky Thompson (Bebop Soprano): Lucky is great to listen to if you want to learn how to phrase bebop on the instrument. Swinging on the soprano can be one of the hardest things to do and not have it sound like a high pitched alto or tenor. Lucky was one of the first saxophonists to come along to do this. He is definitely one of the most under-rated soprano saxophonists. Also, if you check out Johnny Hodges on soprano, it's interesting to hear how much he and Lucky share as far as sound conception.

(3) Steve Lacy (Postbop/Modern/Free Jazz Soprano): Lacy is great to listen to if you want to learn how to get the most out of each note. Lacy always put sound first, notes second. I consider Lacy to be the first saxophonists to get a pure soprano sound. And I say this because when you hear Sydney Bechet, it sounds more like a clarinet with a different timbre--which is understandable, being that that was his first instrument. Also, Lacy's sound has a certain fullness that can only come from playing it exclusively.

(4) John Coltrane (Modern Jazz Soprano): From Coltrane I learned how to use the instrument to sustain high levels of energy for extended periods of time. He popularized the soprano as the energy saxophone. Also, with Coltrane being influenced by Eastern religion and music, he was one of the first to use it in a world music context. People often focus on how Coltrane said he heard the soprano as being an extension of his tenor playing, but it was much deeper than that. He was actually the first to showcase the instrument's exotic quality.

(5) Wayne Shorter (Electric and Fusion Jazz Soprano): Wayne is great to listen to if you want to learn how to create drama on the instrument. He is a master of evoking many different emotions through the horn. I consider Wayne's soprano recordings to be lessons in sonic theater. Until Wayne came along the soprano was pretty much delegated to being the "black sheep" of the mainstream jazz world. However, Wayne gave the soprano a home in fusion and more electronic-oriented jazz.

(6) Dave Liebman (Post - Modern Jazz Soprano): Lieb’s soprano playing is great to check out if you want to learn how to combine raw emotional playing with harmonic sophistication. He's definitely got one of the most distinctive soprano sounds in modern jazz. As a matter of fact, his work with Elvin Jones set the precedent for post modern soprano. I would say that his influence on young saxophonists of my generation was the equivalent to Michael Brecker's on the Generation X tenor players.

(7) Evan Parker (Free Jazz Soprano): Evan is great to check out if you want to learn the many sonic possibilities of the soprano. He’s a master of extended techniques. I think of Evan as being like the Jackson Pollack of the instrument.. He broke down the barriers on how we think about the instrument in that there is no apparent link to the past history of jazz.

(8) Branford Marsalis (Modern Jazz/Classical Soprano): Branford is a master of showing the versatility of the instrument. He's  great to check out if you want to learn how to use the soprano in any context from pop to Ornette Coleman type of improvisation.  I've noticed that many contemporary saxophonists who also double have a similar sound concept as Branford, only not as developed. Which probably goes to show how influential he is. One of the things that makes Branford’s sound so unique is that he also borrows from the classical saxophone sound concept—which is similar to the oboe.

(9) Jane Ira Bloom (Modern, Free Jazz Soprano): Jane is truly an original. She has created something that's uniquely her own. Sound-wise, she's similar to Branford in that she, too, has a classical sound concept. And like Lacy, Jane's sound has a full-bodiedness that one gets from playing the instrument exclusively. One of the things that I copped from Jane was using the soprano to create the Doppler effect by swaying the instrument from side to side. It's one of those things that's very specific to the soprano.

(10) Keith Jarrett (Modern, Free Jazz Soprano): Keith is probably the most surprising name on the list. But I think he has one of the most organic soprano sounds and approaches I've heard. I like it because his playing is timbre-oriented and not lick-oriented. It doesn't sound like he's hearing anything but the true sound of the instrument. I wish he had recorded more on the instrument. I've cited Coltrane as highlighting the instrument's exotic quality, but Jarrett is definitely is on that list, too. He differs in that he actually uses the soprano as a type of double-reed folk instrument.


  1. sam, i've switched to saxello from a curved soprano!

  2. Hi Wen,
    Yes, I checked it out. Sounds beautiful! I'm curious to know what the differences are between the two. And thanks for checking out my blog.

    Best, - S

  3. Nice list, thanks.

    I think I'd have to put in a nod for John Surman and maybe even Lol Coxhill. Difficult to know what to say about these players, but they both put the soprano as their first instruments (sort of), and were not just doubling - if you see what I mean.

    I also have to say I have a soft spot for Lester Young on the few recordings where he played soprano. Okay, ist's just Prez version soprano, but what can you say?!

  4. Hi Joe,

    Do you happen to have the name of the recording where Lester plays soprano? I'd love to hear it. And yes, I like both John Surman and Lol Coxhill. I like Lol looseness and melodic approach, whereas I like John Surman's sense of adventure.

  5. Hi Sam

    I quickly Googled Lester to see if I could find the tracks/CD. But, it seems as though my memory tricked me, and it's the recordings of Lester playing clarinet that I must have remembered as soprano. Those can be found on the Kansas City 6 on Commodore recordings. Sorry about that. However if I come across the holy grail I'll post it ;-).


    Here's an interesting take on sop players (that you may already read). Interesting enough he talks about Lester, but says the closest we'll get to to imagining Lester playing soprano is to listen to Zoot Sims. I'd totally forgotten this great player AND, I don't think I've heard him playing soprano. I'll be checking that out later!

  6. I'm glad you like Keith Jarrett's soprano playing - I've always liked it myself.

    and Evan Parker is fantastic. Conic Sections.

    best wishes,

    Matt Mitchell

  7. HI Matt, I'm going to check out Conic Sections. I'm sure it's amazing! Thanks, - S

  8. Can you recommend some records that Keith Jarrett plays soprano on?

  9. Check out the album he recorded with Gary Burton, for example.

  10. Oliver Nelson had a great sound on soprano - check out 'Shadow of Your Smile' from 'Sound Pieces' - amazing sound, amazing solo!

  11. A nod for John Butcher. ALthough I prefer his tenor playing, he is committed to taking the soprano into new sound territories.

  12. Thanks, Tony. It's true, Butcher's tenor is powerful!

  13. I have found Steve Lacey in a song, I do not even know the name....super loose piano and recorded poorly but ..WOW, he has the emotion that is unexpected.....refreshing

  14. My list includes Ira Sullivan. I started on trumpet. It was while listening to Ira, I fell in love with the soprano. When I worry that I'm sounding too much like a trumpet, I listen to Ira for the way a soprano is supposed to sound!

  15. Interesting. I know that he plays sax and trumpet. Which instrument are you referring to?

  16. Ira plays both instruments with amazing proficiency and artistry. As a trumpet player I have the sound in my head - the way a trumpet should sound. When I play the soprano sometimes that trumpet sound is stuck in my head - not what you want! I put on Ira's "After Hours" and listen to what a soprano should sound like - and try and get that in my head.

  17. Lucky Thompson also sounds great on some Jerome Kern tunes on his CD called "Happy Days" as well as on a version of "As Time Goes By". Although not a jazz player relative to the ones mentioned, Paul McCandless with Oregon to my ears sounds great too. is also a monster oboe player.

  18. Let's not forget Zoot Sims and his wonderful record "Soprano Sax"!

  19. I'll definitely check this recording out. I'm not familiar with Zoot's soprano work.

  20. Not just Zoot's album Soprano Sax, but on his version of Indiana from an album he made with Bucky Pizzarelli (Buddy Rich and Lionel Hampton too) titled Somebody Loves Me. I'm a big fan of all the great soprano players you've mentioned, but the crown goes to Zoot!

  21. Thanks for very nice list..I disagree with none of your choices. Kethi Jarrett is a new idea! Did you consider Anders Paulsson for his recording In A Sentimental Mood with Harry Huff on pipe organ? recorded 1989 ECM label in Sweden, after many yrs out of print now available on Amazon. to me, stunning purity of tone, intonation, the obvious love and respect for Ellington and Strayhorn's music. truly a religious experience (Huff is music director, organist, etc. at Harvard Divinity School).

  22. sorry, LCM not ECM LCM C-117 is the issue.

  23. Thanks for this list -- this blog is always interesting to read and think about!
    I made a 4-CD soprano sounds sampler for a student who was just getting into the horn and only really knew Trane and Wayne at that point, and Steve Lacy who had just joined our faculty. I included the ten you mentioned, missed Zoot and Oliver Nelson, but here are the players and some titles I found that I thought he should hear. They're all over the map.
    Hodges (Blue Goose), Charlie Barnet (Shady Lady, Dark Bayou by Dennis Sandole), Joe Farrell (Moon Germs), Cannonball (Country Preacher), Konitz (Tea for Two from Nonet, '76), Sonny Rollins (Poinciana), Pharoah Sanders (Astral Traveling), Gary Bartz (many, but I chose "Miss Otis Regrets"), Roscoe Mitchell, Julius Hemphill (G Song - unique sound), Oliver Lake ("Oliver Lake" by Michael Gregory Jackson), Lol Coxhill, Jan Garbarek, Tom Scott (w/Joni "Cold Blue Steel..." and McCartney "Listen to What the Man Said"), Grover Washington Jr. (Reed Seed, Little Man w/Charles Fambrough), Hermeto Pascoal (Cherry Juice), Captain Beefheart (1010th Day of the Human Pyramid), Ronnie Laws (Karmen), Bruce Ackley, Dwight Andrew (Um Girasol - beautiful). For Keith Jarrett, there are lots of choices but I picked "Encore" from _Eyes of the Heart_ (ECM '76) which has a great Dewey Redman entrance on an earlier track...Anyway, I hope people enjoy checking out some of those sounds. I find them all inspiring in different ways as far as possible soprano sounds.

    1. P.S. Sorry: Beefheart track is "Thousand and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole" (1982) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPLjKHKoE8w He may not know what he's doing but it's unique. Best, Allan Chase

  24. WTF??!? Where's Kenny G on this list! You know he rips all over these guys..I put him at 1-5 on this list. Come on, I mean listen to his overdub of Louie Armstrong "Wonderful World" ... Pure gold!

  25. I've just bought a Sop Sax having played Alto for a few years. I love the sound tone of the Sop Sax. Thanks for this list. It gives me some players to listen to. I certainly would not be wasting my time listening to Kenny G! Why would he be on a Jazz List? I assume irony is in play?


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