In the Peter L. Bull documentary Lift the Bandstand, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy said that in 1960, that he and John Coltrane were the only modern jazz soprano saxophonists. Today, Mr. Lacy would be very happy to know that this is no longer the case.
Since that time, the soprano has found its way into the hands of many. Wayne Shorter summed it up best when he said that "Anyone who plays soprano orientates himself on Steve Lacy." Of course, there was a lot done with the soprano that I'm sure Lacy would not want to take credit for. But all in all, it has been a positive journey for this enigmatic instrument that Lacy affectionately called "the difficult child" of the saxophone family.
Now the focus of this article is to highlight saxophonists who identify themselves as soprano specialists. I say this because many saxophonists who are actually great soprano players have been left off this list: Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell, John Butcher, Evan Parker, just to name of few. But I felt in order to truly commemorate Lacy's legacy, it would be most fitting to highlight soprano specialists, being that we are the ones who are doing as he did, which is to forge a path in jazz that's solely centered around the soprano and all of its many sonic possibilities.
I'm sure if you were to compare my list with that of the 62 Annual Downbeat Critics Poll (the Soprano Saxophone and the Soprano Saxophone Rising Star categories) there would be little overlap--which is an article all to itself. In addition to the aforementioned reason, I'm keeping the scope of this list very narrow because (1) to name all of the saxophonists who double and dabble on the soprano would be too exhaustive, and (2) players who specialize on the soprano are often overlooked by the popular jazz press, such as Downbeat, Jazz Times, Jazz Improv, etc. So this is an opportunity bring some attention to players whom jazz audiences should know but don't, simply because of the instrument that they play, as well as having a musical aesthetic that is not in alliance with popular trends in contemporary jazz. And as an aside, many of soprano players listed actually had the opportunity to study with and play alongside Lacy. One cannot help but envy that.
The players are not listed in any order of importance. It's simply what felt right at that moment. And if I left anyone off this list, it was not intentional. It's only because I was not aware of what you do. So please reach out to me, I'd love to hear from you.
David Liebman (Stroudsburg, PA)
Sam Newsome (New York NY)
Jasmine Lovell Smith (Wellington, New Zealand)
Gilles Laheurte (New York, NY) 1946 - 2014
Kayla Milmine (Montreal, Canada)
Harri Sjöström (Turku, Finland)
Michel Doneda (Toulouse, France)
Petras Vysniauskas (Plunge, Lithuania)
Gene Coleman (New York, NY)
Gianni Mimmo (Pavia, Italy)
Heath Watts (Philadelphia, Penn)
Jane Bunnett (Toronto, CN)
Nikolas Skordas (Thessaloniki, Greece)
Jane Ira Bloom (New York, NY)
Lol Coxhill (London, UK) 1932 - 2012
Joe Giardullo (Stone Ridge, NY)
Andrew Raffo Dewar (Tucaloosa, AL)
Yanni Hat (Athens, Greece)
Bhob Rainey (Boston, Mass)
Happy Birthday, Mr Lacy. And thank you for the legacy you've left behind.