Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Who Needs It: Steve Lacy and Branford Marsalis

In this blog piece, I’ve created two listening guides as a means to do a comparative analysis of these two performances of the Steve Lacy composition, “Who Needs It” performed by Steve Lacy, himself, on his classic CD, Sands;  and Branford Marsalis, on his CD, In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral.

These performances have two things in common. One, they were both recorded on the soprano, and two, they both were performed solo (unaccompanied).

Steve Lacy, as most fans of his music already know, recorded a voluminous amount of solo saxophone music. Coleman Hawkins may have popularized it, but Lacy certainly turned it into an art form.

In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral is Branford Marsalis’ first full-length solo saxophone CD. And I say, “full-length” because Branford is no stranger to playing solo. In fact, there was a time he would play Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” as an encore. No easy feat, I might add. But he did pull it off quite effectively.

When you listen to the way that both Lacy and Marsals interpret this piece, it’s pretty obvious that their styles vastly differ. Lacy is a minimalist and is economical to a fault; while Marsalis expertly walks that fine line between flash and taste. More simply put: Lacy’s approach is more sound centered, whereas Marsalis’ is more idea-centered.

“Who Needs It” as a composition is pretty minimal, as is the case with most of Lacy’s tunes. The form is A, A, A, B.  And the A section is 10 bars in length and in the key of Gb major and the B section is 12 bars in length and is in the key of G major. Simply put, it's the same theme played in two different keys. Similar modal jazz tunes written using this approach are Miles Davis' "So What," and John Coltrane's "Impressions." The difference, of course, is that Lacy's tune is in a major tonality, while the two aforementioned are in a minor key.  (Please see lead sheet below)


Steve Lacy – Who Needs It
0:00 – Lacy plays the main theme in the key of Gb major.
0:23 – He plays the theme again with little variation.
0:45 – Staying true to his very disciplined minimalist approach, Lacy plays the theme a third time with little variation.
1:07 – He then plays the B section, which is the theme in the key of G.
1:29 – Lacy improvises in Key of G.
2:09 – He then returns to the main theme, the A section, in the key Gb major, modulation down a half step.
2:30 – Lacy plays the last two bars of the theme, three times as a type of coda.


Branford Marsalis – Who Needs It
0:10 – Theme 1: (After the applause ) Marsalis plays the theme somewhat fragmented at a mezzo forte volume.
0:33 – Theme 2 – When playing the main the 2nd time, Marsalis begins at almost a whisper as a way of enticing the listener, while at the same time, playing the melody even more fragmented with brief moments of silence that makes the theme feel more suspenseful
as a way to keep the listener from settling into an aural comfort zone.
0:56 – Theme 3 – Marsalis begins the theme this time around at much louder volume. And he plays it less fragmented.
1:13 -  Theme 4 -  Unlike Lacy, Marsalis continues in the key Gb. He begins by referencing the theme, which organically morphs into an improvised solo.
1:30 – At the end of this theme variation/improvised solo, Marsalis loosely plays the last two bars of the theme as the 1st melodic cadence, marking the end of the sections.
1:34 –  At this point, Marsalis has totally broken away from the original theme and has begun laying his melodic groundwork in the key of Gb major, with a very active improvisation.
1:51 – Marsalis, again references that last two bars as for the 2nd melodic cadence that sets the stage for a more elaborate solo.
2:14 – Marsalis, loosely references the last two measures for the 3rd melodic cadence, the sets the stage for a more chromatic improvisaton.
2:26 – Marsalis, abruptly changes the tempo, to single the coming of the last theme
2:49 – Marsalis, loosely references the last two measures for the 4th melodic cadence, which sets the stage for him to play the set up theme in the key of G major by loosely referencing it. He proceeds with an improvised solo in the same key.
3:21 – Marsalis plays the 5th melodic cadence, to set up the performance of the last theme
3:25 – Plays the last theme in the key of G major, playing the last two bars three times as a coda.

To hear both of these interpretations in the context of the entire CD, please visit:
Steve Lacy, SANDS

You won’t be disappointed!

REVISION: After I posted this originally, soprano saxophonist Stefano Scippa informed me that he transcribed "Who Needs It" sometime ago, and was generous enough to let me post it. FYI, this is a Bb part, in the key of the soprano. Thanks, Stefano!


  1. Thanks, Joe. I'm honored to have you as a reader. Best! - S

  2. Thank you, very detailed and inspiring , thank you!


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