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



Thursday, July 28, 2011

Can You Double And Still Be A Great Soprano Saxophonist?

Saxophonists often inquire how I’m able to play certain extended techniques on the soprano--whether it’s multiphonics, slap-tonguing, or playing in the altissimo register (Right now, my practical rage in C4 and my extreme range is Eb 4, reed permitting).

Now if I had to give a one-word answer as to how I’m able to do these things, I would have to say “flexibility.” Which leads to the discussion of whether of not you can be a great soprano saxophonist even if you play it as a double.

Steve Lacy once said during an interview: “There's a lot more flexibility with a soft reed, so you can go much higher. A hard reed is limited. After you reach a certain point, the door is closed.” I feel this addresses the fundamental problem with playing the soprano saxophone as a double. The set-ups that doublers play on soprano are often too big for the instrument.

As I see it, if you play the soprano using a set-up that’s comparable to a much larger horn, you’re not dealing with the soprano on it’s own terms. It’s being treated as an extension of a much larger horn, and not as a separate entity.

When I first switched from the tenor saxophone to the soprano, I was amazed at how loud I was able to play. I remember attending various late-night New York City jam sessions and recall being able to play louder than some of the trumpet players. Though intrigued by my newfound power and superhuman strength, I did find that my sound was very lacking. I often felt the limitations that many said would be apparent upon choosing to make the soprano sax my primary instrument.


Two of the most noticeable limitations were my inability to play high and my inability to play low.

It’s difficult to play high without flexibility. The word flexibility actually means “easily bent or shaped.” For something to be easily bent or shaped, first of all, it must be soft. Which do you think would be more fun to play with and will inspire more creative thoughts—clay putty or a hard clay pot?

The same principle can apply to reeds and how they affect sound production. Softer reeds offer a few advantages. One, because the softness of the reed allows it to vibrate more, it allows you to produce a sound richer in harmonics. And two, it allows more room for sound and pitch manipulation, which are mandatory if one chooses to play notes belonging to what Steve Lacy refers to as the “stratosphere.” If all of your effort is going into getting the reed to vibrate, than that leaves little room for anything else, except for basic sound production. Also note that controlling the high register isn’t just about embouchure control, but oral cavity manipulation, too—speeding up and control the airflow by changing the position of the tongue.

Now, as far as playing in the lower register of the soprano, the one thing you don’t want to do it treat it as a throw away register. The soprano is unique in that even in its extreme low register it is still in practical range as far as laying in the cut of the chord or of the melody or melodic line. Therefore, when playing down below, you don’t want to play a reed that only allows you to “honk” the note out, or only get a sound that’s abrasive and/or harsh. Having a lower register that’s in tune, with a warm and breathy sub-tone is one the hallmarks of having great sound control on the soprano.


From my own experience, I’m finding that the longer I play the soprano, the more I long for the kind of flexibility that will allow me to be as expressive on soprano as I was on tenor saxophone—being able to play low as well as high, delicate as well as harsh, soft as well as loud. And much to my surprise, I’m finding that more my chops develop, the less stiffness I actually need from a reed, causing me to actually come down in reed size. And this, however, contradicts the resistance-training approach practiced by many who believe that the stronger you get, the more resistance you need, or stiffer reed.

I’ve found that the stronger I get, the more I’m better able to handle the increased amount of vibration that comes from moving down in reed strength. And, consequently, this is what gives me the flexibility to play many of the extended techniques mentioned earlier, along with increase sound projection.

Let me just conclude saying that, ultimately, how good or accomplished someone becomes on the soprano or any instrument for that matter, lies in their talent, dedication and artistic vision. Without these three things, you can play an instrument exclusively until the cows come home, and it won’t automatically put you ahead of the game.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Downbeat Critics Poll

Here are the results of the 59th Annual Downbeat Critics Poll:

Category: Soprano Saxophone

1. Dave Liebman
2. Jane Ira Bloom
3. Wayne Shorter
4. Branford Marsalis
5. Steve Wilson
6. Joe Lovano
7. Evan Parker
8. Chris Potter
9. James Carter
10. Sam Newsome
11. Anat Cohen
12. Joshua Redman
13. Kenny Garrett
14. Roscoe Mitchell
15. Jane Burnett

I'm happy to have made a decent placing this year. I remember a time when I wasn't even in the consciousness of the critics. Even though I was one of the few saxophonists of my generation playing the instrument exclusively (at least that I knew of, anyway), I was still never really taken seriously.

And it's understandable.

Many knew me as a tenor player. And when people have one perception of you, it takes a while for them to accept a different side of you--especially when you aim re-event yourself. For example, I like comedian Dave Chappelle. But if he decided to become a Shakespearean actor, it would take me a few years to get used to.

But it did teach me that if you want something, you have to work hard for it. You don't always get it by default. Or just because you feel you deserve it. Besides, anybody can cry "unfairness," or the infamous Spike Lee quote: "We wuz robbed."

I found that real and significant change only happens when you accept responsibility for your own fate. If your music doesn't get the type of response you feel it deserves, you have to either improve it, target a different audience, or learn to market it better. Finger-pointing only leaves you frustrated and bitter. And most of all, in the same predicament.


Even though it's an ego boost when critics say nice things about you, at the end of the day, you have to take these things with a grain of salt. The focus has to be on your body of work and what you want your musical legacy to be--not settling for becoming another flavor of the month. I've seen many of them come and go. So many, actually, that they're becoming easily recognizable.


Dave Liebman placed as the number one soprano saxophonist in this year's poll. But this climb to the top took 38 years. Believe it or not, it's true. If this isn't a lesson in being patient and staying focused, I don't what is.

Like they say, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings!"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Problems Aren't Always A Problem

Many of you who know me are aware that in addition to writing wacky saxophone articles, I also divide my time between coming up with crazy stuff to play on the soprano and being college professor. Upon getting the job, many of my colleagues, and me, for the matter, wondered if the time vested and responsibility of being a full-time professor would take away from my music and my artistic growth.

Oddly enough, I have found it to be just the contrary.

Studying music can be viewed as a means of problem solving. You look at your objectives, what you want to learn, and you come up with a series of equations (or problems) to solve to help you process the information. Similar to being a scientist or researcher. Instead of working solely with numbers and scientific equations, we work with various degrees of sound and rhythm.

Saxophonist Gary Bartz once said in an interview that when you look at the music of Thelonious Monk, you see a series a musical problems that he was addressing. My guess is that learning to improvise over deceptive dominant seventh chord resolutions was a way in which Monk used to gain more harmonic and rhythmic freedom. And I say rhythmic because, once you get over your harmonic inhibitions, it tends to free you up rhythmically.

After identifying a problem, it is then important to come up with logical, efficient and sequential ways to solve them. In other words, learning to get from point A to point B in the most time efficient and least labor intensive way possible. Sometimes we tend to practice without clear objectives. Though it is true that you can’t rush the creative process, and the creative process doesn’t always fit comfortably inside a box, neither should one confuse nor blur the distinction between quality time and quantity time.

John Coltrane was famous for his long and somewhat fanatical practice routines; many have misinterpreted this. Here’s what I mean. He didn’t practice for eight hours a day because he felt that he couldn’t play, he practiced a lot because he had a vision. He had a musical vision that encompassed a wide array of elements and required him to have a specific kind of sound, technique, and harmonic and rhythmic language. It’s obvious that he identified his objectives and set out to achieve them in an orderly and efficient way: One, he accomplished so much in such a short amount time. And two, it is impossible to practice for that many hours, for that span of time, with such amazing results, without being organized. There was definitely a method to his madness.

Remember that when confronted with musical problems, it's not always a negative. As long as you address them correctly, consistently, and methodically, they become your best means towards achieving musical growth. You'll wonder how you ever lived without them!

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