Sam Newsome

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

Please check out my interview on THE JAZZ SESSION w/Jason Crane

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Who Needs It: A Comparative Study of Steve Lacy and Branford Marsalis Playing Solo

Presented here are two listening guides as a means to do a comparative analysis of these two performances of the Steve Lacy composition, “Who Needs It,” performed by Steve Lacy, himself, on his classic CD, Sands;  and Branford Marsalis, on his CD, In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral.

These performances have two things in common. One, they were both recorded on the soprano, and two, they both were performed solo (unaccompanied).

Steve Lacy, as most fans of his music already know, recorded a voluminous amount of solo saxophone music. Coleman Hawkins may have popularized it, but Lacy certainly turned it into an art form.

In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral is Branford Marsalis’ first full-length solo saxophone CD. And I say, “full-length” because Branford is no stranger to playing solo. In fact, there was a time he would play Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” as an encore. No easy feat, I might add. But he did pull it off quite effectively.

When you listen to the way that both Lacy and Marsalis interpret this piece, it’s pretty obvious that their styles vastly differ. Lacy is a minimalist and is economical to a fault; while Marsalis expertly walks that fine line between flash and taste. Lacy’s approach is more sound centered, whereas, Marsalis tend to be more idea-centered.

“Who Needs It” as a composition is pretty minimal, which is the case with most of Lacy’s tunes. The form is A, A, A, B.  And the A section is 10 bars in length and in the key of Gb major, and the B section is 12 bars in length, in the key of G major. Simply put, it's the same theme played in two different keys. Comparable modal jazz tunes composed using this approach is the Miles Davis tune "So What," and John Coltrane's "Impressions." The difference, of course, is that Lacy's tune is in a major tonality, while the two aforementioned are in a minor key.  (Please see lead sheet below)


Steve Lacy – Who Needs It
0:00 – Plays the main theme in the key of Gb major.
0:23 – Plays the theme again with little variation.
0:45 – Staying true to his very disciplined minimalist approach, he plays the theme a third time with little variation.
1:07 – He then plays the B section, which is the theme in the key of G.
1:29 – Improvises in Key of G.
2:09 – Returns to the main theme, the A section, in the key Gb major, modulation down a half step.
2:30 – Plays the last two bars of the theme, three times as a type of coda.


Branford Marsalis – Who Needs It
0:10 – Theme 1: (After the applause ) Marsalis plays the theme somewhat fragmented at a mezzo forte volume.
0:33 – Theme 2 – When playing the main the 2nd time, Marsalis begins at almost a whisper as a way of enticing the listener, while at the same time playing the melody even more fragmented with brief moments of silence that makes the theme feel more suspenseful.
as a way to keep the listener from settling into an aural comfort zone.
0:56 – Theme 3 – Marsalis begins the theme this time around at a much louder volume. He also plays it less fragmented.
1:13 -  Theme 4 -  Unlike Lacy, Marsalis continues in the key Gb. He begins by referencing the theme, which organically morphs into an improvised solo.
1:30 – At the end of this theme variation/improvised solo, Marsalis loosely plays the last two bars of the theme as the 1st melodic cadence, marking the end of the section.
1:34 –  At this point, Marsalis has totally broken away from the original theme and has begun laying his melodic groundwork in the key of Gb major, with a very active improvisation.
1:51 – References that last two bars as for the 2nd melodic cadence that sets the stage for a more elaborate solo.
2:14 – Loosely references the last two measures for the 3rd melodic cadence, which sets the stage for more improvisation laced with more improvisation.
2:26 – Abruptly changes the tempo to signal the coming of the last theme.
2:49 – Loosely references the last two measures for the 4th melodic cadence, which sets the stage for him to play the theme in the key of G major by loosely referencing it. He proceeds with an improvised solo in the same key.
3:21 – Plays the 5th melodic cadence to set up the performance of the last theme.
3:25 – Plays the last theme in the key of G major, playing the last two bars three times as a coda.

To hear both of these interpretations in the context of the entire CD, please visit:
Steve Lacy, SANDS

You won’t be disappointed!

REVISION: After I posted this originally, soprano saxophonist Stefano Scippa informed me that he transcribed "Who Needs It" some time ago, and was generous enough to let me post it. FYI, this is a Bb part, in the key of the soprano. Thanks, Stefano!


  1. Thanks, Joe. I'm honored to have you as a reader. Best! - S

  2. Thank you, very detailed and inspiring , thank you!

  3. great work, very nice the posibility of we can to comparative the Steve Lacy and Branford Marsalis playing solos. Allows us to continue learning. The Lacy's sound is still and will be being TREMENDOUS. thanks you Sam.

  4. This should and could be a standard tune in jazz now that it's out there.


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