Sam Newsome

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

Monday, January 5, 2015

Inside the Piano: Interpetations of Lacy

Ten years ago when I bought the solo Steve Lacy recording More Monk, I discovered two things. One, Thelonious Monk's melodies make great vehicles for improvisation for a solo saxophone performance; and two, the soprano sounds really cool when played into the strings of the piano while the damper/sustain pedal is pressed down. When employing this technique, the sound of the soprano vibrates the strings creating a very lush sonic soundscape that sounds similar to an echo chamber.

On More Monk,  recorded on the Italian label Soul Note (which was known for documenting a lot adventurous music and musicians), Lacy records an exclusive program of Thelonious Monk compositions---"Trinkle Tickle,"  "Ruby My Dear, " "In Walked Bud"--all the classics. However, on "Crepuscule With Nellie, " you can hear Lacy employing the playing-into-the- strings technique. Due to the way that it's recorded, it may not be as obvious. One might think that it's just an overuse of reverb. However, when you listen closely, you can hear there's a lot more going on. You can actually  hear his notes bouncing off the strings.  I've found this to be a great exercise for learning how to listen to yourself and learning how to play more economically. When using this technique, the more notes your play, the more you get in your own way. It's pretty revealing.



This next piece is John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme: Acknowledgment" from my CD The Art of the Soprano, Vol.1. Being that it's scaled down to solo soprano saxophone, as you might imagine, it's a lot different from the original. You'll also notice with this track, the resonance of the strings are a lot more prominent than on the track with Lacy. This is mostly because we, in addition to mic'ing the inside the piano, also placed a couple of mics underneath the piano to capture some of the sound that's being lost. Hats off to my recording engineer Katsuhiko Naito for thinking of this.


The final piece is titled "Dark Continent Dialogues,"  from my CD The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation (The Art of the Soprano, Vol.2). Here, I've taken the concept a few steps further. One, in addition to playing into the strings of the piano with the sustain pedal pressed down, I'm also using the bell of the soprano to strike and strum the strings, enabling me to accompany myself. Then I take it even a step further by recording another track with me improvising along with the first one. So there is a lot of resonating of strings going on. And this is one of those extended techniques that's very specific to the soprano. I can't imagine pulling this off on the tenor saxophone--maybe a straight alto.

When practicing this technique,  here are a couple factors to consider:

1. Use a baby grand or grand piano. It does work on an upright, but the effects are minimal.

2. Use some type of weighted object to hold down the damper/sustain pedal. I've found that the piano bench does the trick. I realize that not everyone has a 30 pound cinder block handy! Besides, holding it down with your feet while arching over the piano will soon take its toll on your back. I'm speaking from experience.

3. Experiment with playing into the different parts of the piano's sound chamber as well as playing in the different registers of the instrument. As you might imagine, Bb1 - D1 are most effective. But I have gotten some nice resonance from notes in the higher register too. As I said before, you have see what works for your sound and set-up.

Give it a try. If nothing else, you'll have fun!

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