Sam Newsome

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

Four (4) Schools of Solo Saxophone Playing

Since I began exploring this path of playing in the unaccompanied format almost 10 years ago, my style of solo saxophone playing has come to integrate four distinct approaches, ones best named by the players who developed them: 1) Anthony Braxton, 2) Evan Parker, 3) Steve Lacy, and 4) Sonny Rollins.

1) Anthony Braxton - Compositional/Improvisational

 When listening to Braxton play solo saxophone, it can be hard to distinguish between what’s written out and what’s improvised. He often combines 20th century classical composition with improvisation in its most general sense, and not necessarily jazz improvisation--where blues, swing and syncopated rhythms are at the core of the music’s aesthetic. However, the end results are always very musical. Whenever I improvise a piece on the spot, I can rarely do so without thinking about Braxton. The musical equivalent would be playing a sax and drum duo and not think of Coltrane and Elvin.

2.  Evan Parker - Sonic/Soundscape

Evan's  approach is probably the most radical and inventive of the aforementioned players because it has less to do with traditional ways of thinking about music with regards to form, rhythm, and harmony. It's more about exploring the numerous and often under-explored sonic possibilities of the instrument through the use of circular breathing and extending saxophone techniques. While studying Evan Parker’s music I thought it would be interesting to use the concept of playing multiphonics--playing two or more notes simultaneously--out of their usual role of noise and textures, and apply them in a more traditional way, such as using them to create chordal accompaniment. This potentially poses problems when playing with conventionally tuned pianos and guitars, since many of the chords produced using multiphonics are hybrid chords, borrowing from the microtonal and equal temperament scale systems.

3)  Steve Lacy - Head-Solo-Head

Steve Lacy’s style of solo saxophone is the same format used in most traditional jazz performances. Unlike Braxton, Lacy rarely wrote pieces specifically for solo saxophone. He would often take tunes that he played in duo, trios, quartets, quintets, etc., and play them solo. Of course, the solo interpretations sound a lot more free and elastic. Not to mention, that his approach is the most minimal of the four. With Lacy, it's all about sound, not virtuosity. You might say that his virtuosity comes from the way in which he deals with sound. I feel that's why he sometimes he barely improvises. He was able to make his statement with how he played the melody.

4)  Sonny Rollins - Extended Cadenza

I feel Sonny's solo saxophone approach was heavily influenced by the extended cadenzas played by John Coltrane during mid-late sixties, where Coltrane would often play cadenzas at the end of piece, usually ballads that were often longer than the piece itself. Sonny created a style of solo saxophone playing that often takes the listener on a melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and historical journey--drawing heavily upon his calypso background. Sonny’s approach is probably more closely related to Steve Lacy’s, of the aforementioned saxophonists. The big difference being that Sonny usually played on the tune’s harmonic structure (or some type of  harmonic structure), whereas Steve Lacy’s rarely followed as easily identifiable progression. As a matter of fact, he usually played free.

Of course, they are a lot of practitioners of the solo saxophone format that are not on this list. But I narrowed it down to the four whom I think have been the most influential on me. And I can't end this post without a special shout out to Dave Liebman, Lol Coxhill, John Butcher, and of course, Coleman Hawkins, who actually started it all.


Sopranoplanet said...

This is a very useful take on approaches to solo playing. I would say, however, that Steve Lacy's solo approach was almost always rigorously based on a harmonic framework, although not in the "leading tone" tradition of someone like Sonny Rollins, perhaps.

Lacy's pitch and interval selection pursued an "omni-harmonic" approach, where they pointed in multiple possible directions for resolution.

In this way, I'd say that Steve had somethings in common with Eric Dolphy's solo playing.

My Profile said...

I do agree that Lacy's improvising is based on a harmonic structure. But I actually think that it's more similar to Ornette Coleman, in that harmonic framework sounds more random, than say a Sonny Rollins, which why I used the term "free."

But I'm fascinated to hear Dolphy's solo work. Can you recommend some recordings? Then maybe I can hear the "omni-harmonic" approach you mentioned.

SidesJunkie said...

Dolphy's version of "Tenderly" from Far Cry is tremendous and his bass clarinet solo of "God Bless The Child" recorded in Europe is great as well.

Sopranoplanet said...

I do think there are some connections between Lacy and Ornette in terms of form, but OC is so drenched in blues-based phraseology, it's hard to compare to Lacy's almost everything-but-the-blues aesthetic (I know, it's an overstatement, but compared to Ornette, it isn't that far from the truth).

OC is still connected, albeit rather uniquely, to leading tone harmony. Lacy seems to avoid leading tones in most of his solo work.

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