Sam Newsome

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

Monday, January 2, 2012

Exploring the Soprano's Basement

One of my favorite books for learning about jazz history and to get a quick dose of musical inspiration is Steve Lacy: Conversations by Jason Weiss. This book is a collection of Steve Lacy interviews where he talks about life, music, and most times the soprano.

Here's one excerpt that I found particularly enlightening where he talks about 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 couldn't agree with Lacy more about this. The lower register of the soprano is without a doubt the most neglected part of the instrument, second only to the altissimo. In general, this area of the saxophone is not considered part of the instrument's practical range--which is understandable with the larger members of the saxophone family; melodies and lines played on those instruments tend to sound muffled down there. On the soprano, however, this neglected area is the warmest part of the horn.

Most of us, myself included, are influenced by Coltrane's approach to the instrument, who favored the higher register, as he did on tenor. Which is great, mind you, for a certain thing--mainly intensity and cutting through the rhythm section. Intensity, however, is only a small part of what the soprano is capable of. To get to the instrument's real beauty, you have to go down stairs to the basement, so to speak. As you find with most basements (If I may keep this analogy going), it will be dirty, cluttered, and unsettling in the beginning. But once you clean it up you will discover a new place of comfort.

I suggest starting off spending a good two weeks only practicing melodies and your musical ideas only using the notes between Bb1 (low Bb) - Bb2. It's uncomfortable in the beginning, but after a few days you start to find your way though the dark, so to speak.

One of the things I like to do is practice Charlie Parker's tune "Now's the Time" in the key of Eb concert. This puts the melody right in the very bottom of the horn. You can do this with any melody, but this is a good place to start.

In the words of President Obama, "Real change happens from the bottom up."


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