Sam Newsome

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

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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Straight Horn of Keith Jarrett

As someone who plays soprano exclusively, you might figure me for someone with unusual and eclectic musical taste.

One of those unusual and eclectic gems I like to enjoy is the soprano saxophone playing of Keith Jarrett. Musicians typically look at me with an air of suspicion whenever I mention him as one of my favorite soprano players. Their response is usually,  "Keith Jarrett, the piano player?"

I always thought it would be hilarious if there actually was a guy out there named Keith Jarrett who only played the soprano. That would be funny!

In this post, I'm going to examine Jarrett's progression on the soprano saxophone from 1968, while a member of the Charles Lloyd Quartet, to 1976, when he was leading his acclaimed American Quartet.

Being first a piano player, Jarrett has an aesthetical advantage in that he can play the soprano from the perspective of someone who is not doubling on it. His approach sounds solely soprano-centered. I can't say for certain, but I imagined he didn't start off playing alto and tenor in the junior high stage band and later developed the soprano as an extension of one of the much larger saxophones.

He approaches the soprano like it's a folk instrument. It's very primitive, in many respects. You don't hear the typical post-Coltrane language commonly played by saxophonists during that time. Most of what he plays is organic, melodic language. In fact, he sounds more from the Ornette Coleman lineage than anyone else.

VIDEO 1: The first video features Jarrett playing with the Charles Lloyd Quartet on a television series called Jazz Casual, hosted by jazz critic Ralph Gleason on National Educational Television (NET), the predecessor what we now know as the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). It was based out of San Francisco, California and featured 30-minute performances by legendary jazz groups such as the John Coltrane Quartet, MJQ, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. It was quite an oasis.

The first clip is from June 18, 1968, when the Charles Lloyd Quartet appeared on the show with Lloyd on tenor saxophone, Ron McClure on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and the 23-year-old Jarrett on piano and soprano saxophone.

During this period, you can hear that Jarrett is still grappling with the instrument. His sound is not yet developed nor distinctive, and he seems unable to keep up with Lloyd's sheer power and energy.  Mind you, he is only 23 and is first an accomplished pianist, so we can probably cut him some slack. But you can still hear that there's something there--a uniqueness that will be more evident in later clips.

VIDEO 2: This second clip features Jarrett alongside his working trio with Charlie Haden on bass and Paul Motion on drums. Recorded in 1970 at a concert in Germany, here, we hear a 25-year-old Jarrett, who's starting to come into his own in terms of sound and overall comfort with the instrument. His tone is more distinctive, fuller, more in tune, he's utilizing the different registers, and you can hear him starting to employ what became known as his signature throat growl. What I like most about the clip is how he utilizes space. I imagine part of this stems from his limitations on the instrument along with his innate sense of musicality. I would have loved to have heard an entire set of Jarrett in this configuration.

VIDEO 3: This next clip features a 29-year-old Jarrett on soprano with his American Quartet with Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass, and Paul Motion on drums. It was recorded March 5, 1974, at the Jazz Workshop, located in the basement of the Inner Circle Restaurant at 733 Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The Jazz Workshop was another one of these now defunct musical oases that featured groups led by jazz greats passing through Beantown, like John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

Here, we are going to listen to a piano-less quartet with Jarrett and his group exploring the type of free-form improvisation and group interplay forged by Ornette Coleman’s free jazz trios and quartets and those inspired by them. I love the chemistry between Jarrett and Redman. Jarrett has a lot more command of the instrument than he did with the Charles Lloyd group and is able to hold his own with Redman—and in many cases being the initiator of musical directions. You can also hear some of the Redman influence has rubbed off on Jarrett in terms of language and tonal inflections. There are even times, I feel he sounds like Dewey up an octave. Let me know what you think.

VIDEO 4: This fourth and final clip is from a live concert recorded at the Theater am Kornmarkt, Bregenz in Austria in May of 1976--unfortunately, this is just audio. It was later released on a 1979 ECM recording titled The Eye of the Heart, which featured the members of his American Quartet with Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden on bass, and Paul Motion on drums.

Now we hear a 31-year-old Jarrett who now has a fully developed musical voice on the instrument. And many ways, Jarrett was extremely lucky in that he spent years working with three of the most distinctive sounding saxophonists: Charles Lloyd, Dewey Redman, and Jan Garbarek. In fact, Jarrett's sound seems almost a mixture of the three, topped with lots of Jarrett, mind you.

CONCLUSION: It's interesting hearing Jarrett's progress on the soprano throughout the years. It almost seems unfair that he has distinctive voices on instruments from two entirely different musical families. But I guess some of us have it like that. And I'm glad he does. It's great that we get a chance to hear the soprano from a new and unique perspective.

One funny anecdote, before I go: Several years ago,  I was taking the Amtrak with Dewey Redman, going from New York to Boston to play a gig with the Matt Wilson Quartet at the Regatta Bar. This was a cool gig, by the way, with Joel Frahm playing tenor saxophone, Yosuke Inoue on bass, and Matt Wilson on drums.  Matt and the others drove up, and I was asked to ride with Dewey to make sure he got there "safely." A few hours into our trip, after hearing all of his amazing stories about Coltrane and Ornette, I asked how he liked Jarrett's soprano playing. I thought for sure he was going to share my sentiment about his unique and original approach to the instrument. I imagine we'd be like two connoisseurs of rare wine bonding over a $23,000.00 bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Wrong! His response was nothing like I expected. His exact words were, "Man, every time he pulled out that thing, I would cringe!" Ouch! I was crushed. But I was not about to debate him. After all, he was Dewey Redman. Even though he said that I'm convinced he meant it. It's obvious that Jarrett was no hack. 

But then I thought, maybe it's a straight horn thing.  

Please check out my book Life Lessons from the Horn and my new CD, Sopranoville.

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  1. I can understand why Dewey Redman had a low opinion Keith Jarrett's soprano sax playing because it was painful listening after seeing these videos. Musicians desiring to play other instruments beyond their primary ones are extensions of themselves. In the case of Mr. Jarrett, he was far better off focusing on piano.

  2. Yes! Jarrett has a sound like no other on the instrument, and a musicality of line and rawness of approach that really work for me. And just the openness of him moving from piano to soprano to flute to tambourine and other percussion in those American Trio/Quartet performances gives them an extra sense of vitality and freshness.

    1. love your comment, Adam. I couldn't agree more. I'm not a musician but I see KJ's openness to different instruments as a vital part of his creative genius. I love his musical mind, the way it works. KJ's musicality is absolutely thrilling.

  3. Interesting approach, nice tone in final video.


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