Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"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.

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

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Four (4) No Nos of Buying a Soprano Mouthpiece

Finding the right mouthpiece and reed combination for the soprano can be extremely challenging--especially if you're accustomed to playing a big mouthpiece on an alto, tenor, or baritone saxophone. Here are some helpful hints that I used to follow when I first started to play the instrument.

No No 1. Never choose quantity of sound over quality of sound. When you slap on a mouthpiece and reed combination for your soprano that's comparable to what you play on one of your other horns, you're pretty amazed at how loud you can play. Unfortunately, when this happens, players often get away from the true soprano sound, and venture into the area of LOUD HORN! Just remember that a car horn during rush hour is loud, too!

No No 2. Never be afraid of using a set-up that requires you to play with a microphone. As a general rule, softer set-ups record and amplify more agreeably that loud, projecting set-ups. From a sound perspective, I often thought of the soprano as being closer to the flute than a straight, smaller version of the alto and tenor. Don't worry. Just because your set-up is soft, people won't think that you're soft, too. Unless, of course...

No No 3. Never buy something that's too big or too hard to control. Stay within your comfort zone. Your main focus when choosing a mouthpiece should be the core of the sound--the SOUND of the soprano, actually, and not the alto or tenor. Think of the soprano sound as a small seed that should be nurtured. Nurture that seed for a few years and it will blossom into something fruitful and abundant.

No No 4. Never by a mouthpiece without first using a chromatic tuner to test the pitch in the instrument's low, middle, and high registers. As I've said in earlier blogs, it can be difficult to differentiate between bright and sharp, and dark and flat, without having first developed an ear for the soprano's delicate nature. Take the subjectivity out of it and know for sure.

If you want to project over a loud rhythm section for three sets, in tune, and without a microphone, the way you're able to with the other saxophones, it takes time. It was a good four to five years of playing it exclusively before I was able to to that. Even then, I still preferred a mic. The range of dynamics I was able to work with was much more rewarding than proving my Sonic Manhood!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sound, Sound, Sound!

One of the keys to becoming a good soprano player is to make the focus of your practice more centered around sound than line oriented ideas. When I was a tenor saxophonist--back in my youth--the bulk of my practice was comprised of practicing licks and patterns through all 12 keys. However, when I switched to the soprano, this approach of vocabulary-calistehnics did not work. I found myself having all of this cool stuff to play, but none of it was in tune. That's when it dawned on me that I was going to have to take a different approach.

Bob Stewart
When practicing the soprano you have to approach it like a brass instrument. I've noticed that brass players rarely pick up their instruments and just start running cool licks. Their practice routines are often very methodical. They often start with long tones, lips slurs, and overtones--first focusing on their sound, what I call the cake, and then adding the ideas, the icing.

As soprano players, we too have to also focus on our sound by playing long tone and overtone exercises. As a matter of fact, practicing overtones is our equivalent to lip slurs. In addition to being great for the embouchure and raising oral cavity awareness, it helps to ensure that our sounds are full, centered and most of all, in tune.

Here are three (3) helpful hints to always keep in mind when working on your sound:

1. Put in a good 30 to 40 minutes of daily long tones and overtones before moving on to the more notey part of your practice.

2. Periodically come back to the long tones and overtones throughout your practice,This will keep you centered. Sound centered, that is.

3. Always keep the book Top Tones for the Saxophone: The Fourth Octave by Sigurd Rascher, in close proximity. This book will give you helpful exercises that will help put together an organized sound-oriented practice routine.

As you become more comfortable with the instrument, and as your sound becomes more consistent, you'll find that you'll have to come back to the long tones and overtones less frequently.

But don't rush it.

I'd rather hear 10 notes played in tune, than a hundred played flat or sharp. And hey, it might be more musical, too.

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