Soprano saxophonist Joe Giardullo, who resides in Woodstock, NY, was gracious enough to grant me an interview, sharing his illuminating thoughts on being a soprano saxophone specialist, finding one's own path, and what it was like to work alongside soprano master Steve Lacy. I first learned of Joe back in 2005 after reading a review of his wonderful solo soprano saxophone recording, No Work Today: Nine for Lacy. I have since been following him closely, checking out various recordings, YOUTUBE videos and numerous articles.
Finding someone who has decided to make the soprano his main instrument, even in this day and age is a rarity, which is why I was very curious to find out what lead him down this road less travelled.
SN: So Joe, what was it that did it for you that made you decide to become a soprano specialist? And when did it happen?
JG: I was a tenor player exclusively until about 1974, when I got my first soprano ( a vintage Conn curved soprano). I just liked the sound and the range of it and when it was damaged in a fall, I was lucky to find a great silver King horn. That was my horn for more than 25 years. As I became more and more influenced by the music out of the AACM, I found myself more and more turning to the soprano instead of the tenor. Then, when I stopped performing in 1981 and fell into a 10 year hiatus from performing, I still played my soprano and worked on my music privately. But I had no intention to return to the life of an improvising musician, so I played it because I loved to play it. That's it. When I then returned to performing and touring again beginning in the early 1990s, I was really only a soprano player. It chose me, actually.
SN: Once you made the commitment to make the soprano saxophone your voice, what were some of the hurdles you were confronted with--technically and musically speaking?
JG: I didn’t recognize any real hurdles, although they were there, I’m sure now. I had no agenda and I wasn’t looking to be somebody’s soprano player. I just developed my music and, without really planning it, my voice and, more importantly at the time, my vocabulary on the soprano. I was much more interested in the musical vocabulary. My sound was my sound, and I am a firm believer that you only need as much technique as you require to achieve what you want to achieve.
SN: You state in your bio that you owe “an eternal debt to Steve Lacy.” What exactly do you mean? What influence did Lacy have on you musically and personally?
JG: There were two modern soprano players that I was aware of: Coltrane and Lacy. I never consider Coltrane a soprano player. I just thought that he played a soprano sometimes and it was beautiful. But Lacy WAS the soprano and he had an intriguing and mysterious musical language as well. There was something more cerebral and less dramatically emotional in his music and I was drawn to that for some reason. And it was his early sound, with Gil Evans for instance, that I just loved. And I loved that he didn’t play in the “bebop” style. I was never very interested in that music and Lacy seemed to be on another path that was rigorous and powerful. I owe him a great debt for the path he walked and the example he set, both as a player and as a person.
SN; When did you first meet Lacy?
JG: I had only met him for a minute after a concert around 1993. There was no conversation, just a “thank you” from me for a beautiful duet performance with Irene Aebi. So, when I was contacted in 2003 and told that Steve wanted to invite me to perform with him for 4 days in Montreal, I was rather stunned. I didn’t think he knew anything about me or my music. I was able to work out my schedule to get from Paris to Montreal in time, which almost didn’t work out. And the first thing he did, at a workshop at McGill University was say to me “let’s play a duet”. I had Steve playing 6 inches from my ear as we blew soprano duets for a long time. But it was the concluding concert some days later that really changed a lot for me. We had spent 4 days talking soprano, trading horns and mouthpieces and just being deep in the music. He was open and very interested to know about my work and ideas. At the conclusion of the final performance, I was standing on stage speaking with some members of the audience when Steve returned to the stage from the dressing room. He walked up to me and said “ Man, I want to tell you that you sound great.”. He hadn’t commented on my playing at all for 4 days, until that moment. I said it was kind of him to say that. And then he got this very serious look on his face and said “Kindness has nothing to do with it. You don’t know how seldom I am able to say that. You sound really great.”
SN: That must have been an overwhelming feeling?
JG: I can’t tell you how that just shook my world. I play a strange instrument with a strange sound and vocabulary and while I’ve had people like what I do, I’ve never had a soprano player tell me that, ever. The coda to that happened about 4 months later when I went to hear Steve’s band in NY, just a few months before he passed away. I could only stay for one set and I didn’t get a chance to say hello before the gig started, so afterwards I walked over to him. He was standing offstage speaking with Danilo Perez as I approached, and he said to Perez “I want you to meet a real soprano player”. It still gives me chills to think about it, really. What Steve showed me, without saying it, is that there is a path. We need to be able to recognize it, first, and then to follow it. And our paths are personal. We are not here to do what has already been done. And he recognized that I was on a path, that it was a serious one and that it was solid and real. It was a kind of blessing, in a way.
SN: When playing the soprano, one is constantly thinking about sound. What musicians or styles of music were important in shaping your sound conception?
JG: I was really influenced by trumpet players early on, for some reason: Don Cherry and Leo Smith are the two most important in those days. My King soprano had a trumpet-like clarity too, not an oboe-type sound. That all changed in 2004, after my time with Steve but things were starting to change just before I worked with him and was directly exposed to his knowledge and spirit. I was hearing things differently and, knowing that the path goes where it must go, I followed. I’ve never been put off by change. I’m not necessarily happy when things change but I’ve been embracing change all my life. It doesn’t put me off at all. I was hearing a more complex sound, warmer at its core but much more omni-harmonic than before. I had returned to listening to the music that really fired me up and rediscovered some things. That music was again the music of the AACM and others on that same path: AIR, CIRCLE, The Revolutionary Ensemble, Leo Smith, Braxton and more.
SN: You also state in your bio that during a five-year period you owned more 25 sopranos. Being someone who has only owned one, please describe to me what that was like. More importantly, how did it get to that point?
JG: Well, there’s that “change” thing again. The King was too raw for what I was now hearing. And, I really wanted to get some modern keywork too. I had been dealing with 1926 keywork and fingerings for a long time. So, I set out to play some horns. What I found was that I liked a lot of them but, after a short period, discovered what was missing in each, in terms of what I was after. I had never owned a Mk VI before, so I started there. I liked them but they were lacking something, especially after coming from an amazing King horn. I would buy a great Mk VI, play it for a few weeks and then sell it. I did that with more than 25 horns. It was kind of ridiculous but I could manage it and it made the investigation a lot easier than going around to play the few sopranos in NYC then and now. But it turns out I really learned a lot about the subtle differences in all these horns. That became very useful when I began making mouthpieces, so now I’m kind of glad it happened. The ones I remember are several Selmer VI, Series I, II and III, Buffet S1, Yanagisawa S6, S800 (2 of them) , the solid silver model, a Yamaha 62R, Borgani (straight and curved), SML, King Marigaux, Conn, Buescher (curved, straight gold plated, straight silver), Borgani (straight and curved), Amati Kraslice, B&S, Jupiter, Cannonball, Martin Handcraft, Rampone & Cazzani, King saxello, CE Winds, Keilwerth, Couf, a handful of Chinese horns.
SN: It’s been my observation that soprano saxophonists tend to think outside the box, having an experimental and eclectic musical aesthetic. Do you agree? If so, why do you think that is the case?
JG: There were so few role models in my day. There are so many more now. I really had no idea what I was supposed to sound like. I discovered my sound, I didn’t set out to “make it” my sound. I’m still discovering it, actually. Today, there are so many more opportunities to have some teacher or other get in the way of discovery, all in the name of education. Nobody got in my way. There’s a downside to that, of course, but the upside has been so much more important to me. There are too many people ready to say ‘you can’t do that” now, in terms of creative music. It’s built into the curriculum at schools and it can just destroy any spark of individuality, which is what I think we all love about creative music. Back when I began playing soprano, there was no one to ask, so once again, I watched for the path and, when I recognized it, I took it. Now, here I am. It’s been a long, strange and wonderful trip, I must say. But yes, I do think that many soprano players are idiosyncratic and self-directed. Perhaps they don’t start out that way but it’s easy to end up there, isn’t it?
SN: One last question. What advice would you give aspiring young saxophonists who might be looking to follow a similar path of being a straighthorn specialist?
JG: I can’t improve on what Steve always said: “Don’t go to school!” But, in this day and age, that is almost unavoidable, so I will add this: we don’t make the music; the music makes us. If you listen to what is inside you and you’re honest with yourself, you’ll find the path. You may not like it but you really don’t have a choice. You are who you are, after all. And that is what we are here to discover, I think. And don’t believe anything you don’t know to be true. When someone tells you that you sound great, hear it and be thankful for the compliment, but don’t believe it. And when they tell you that you sound awful, take it the same way. Accept it but don’t believe it. Only believe what YOU know to be true. After all, this isn’t about them, it’s about you. You may not know that now but you will find out before it’s all over. And, don’t expect the phone to ring with gigs. You have to make your own path. Gil Evans heard Lacy playing a Dixieland gig as a teenager and called him a few years later to be the lead voice in a tentet. I don’t think that’s happened since then, in 1956.
SN: Is there anything that we did not cover that you would like to add?
JG: There is a thing I refer to as ‘the art spirit”. It’s that “thing” inside that compels someone to create. It isn’t a matter of choice at all; it’s a necessity. If you are playing the soprano and you don’t have that “art spirit”, then you can work on any aspect of playing and it is all the same. But when you discover that “art spirit”, it will be letting you know what you should be doing in terms of technique and development and direction. It may not be what you want to do, but it is exactly what you MUST do. Don’t ignore that voice. It’s the real you. Say hello.
Upcoming Joe Giardullo appearances: April 1-13, 2012:
The Stone, NYC for ICTUS RECORDS Festival, with Andrea Centazzo, Roberto Ottaviano and others.Various nights and configurations.
May 20-28, 2012:
Solo soprano tour in Poland, various venues in Warsaw, Wrezsnia, Poznan, Krakow (tba).
June 13, 2012:
THE VISION FESTIVAL, NYC with Joe McPhee, Warren Smith, Roy Campbell, among others: AT PLAY IN THE GARDENS OF HARLEM, dedicated to Clifford Thornton.
July 18-29, 2012:
Puglia, Italy with Andrea Centazzo, Roberto Ottaviano, and others. Various venues.
Latest recordings: THE WAY, Volumes 1 & 2, with Andrea Centazzo on ICTUS RECORDS.
Joe Giardulla's equipment: Couf Superba 1 soprano (1979)
Sopranoplanet Missing Link .088 Marca Superieure # 1 1/2 and #2 reeds Vandoren Optimum ligature For more information about Joe, please visit www.sopranoplanet.com