Saxophonist Jasmine-Lovell Smith is unique in two ways. One, she one the
few young jazz musicians living in the United States who hail from New Zealand
(along with bassist Matt Penman); and two, she is a soprano saxophonist.
If I had to describe Lovell-Smith’s playing in
one word, it would be lyrical. She lives in a space that most of us only visit
occasionally. In this very illuminating interview, Lovell-Smith discusses
growing up in New Zealand, the challenges and joys of playing the soprano, and working
alongside Anthony Braxton as his teaching assistant at Wesleyan University.
So, Jasmine, of all of the saxophones,
why did you choose the soprano? Were there some players who inspired
you—locally and/or on recordings?
It took me quite a while to choose the
soprano. I started out on tenor sax at age 14, since that was the sax that my
high school had available for me to hire. That was fine with me because one of
my first favorite saxophone players was Stan Getz. A few years later when I had
started university. I had an opportunity
to buy a second-hand soprano from one of my teachers. By that time I was
starting to really love the music of Wayne Shorter, so I think that was part of
the reason I was drawn to soprano. Locally, two people that come to mind who I
saw playing soprano were another teacher of mine, Colin Hemmingsen, and Lucien
they still active of the jazz scene there? And what city are you speaking of?
I'm speaking now about Wellington, New
Zealand, where I went to University. It is the capital city and, though not the
largest city in the country, is known for having a great music scene. Yes, as
far as I know Colin and Lucien are both active there, although in different
ways. Lucien is also a composer and bandleader and plays a lot of tenor as
well. Colin is more active within the educational scene, I believe he was
in fact the person who actually founded the first ever jazz university program
in New Zealand. He's also a great bassoon player and last time I heard him play
(several years ago - I haven't spent much time in New Zealand in several years)
the concert was focused on jazz bassoon.
At that time the tenor was still my main horn, and with the soprano it was
usually one step forward and two steps back. I would play it for a while, then
put it down for several months, then pick it up again and find it terribly
hard. I found this so discouraging that I mostly left the soprano in the case
for the next 8 or 9 years.
was discouraging about it?
I couldn't play anywhere close to in
tune! But also, it was difficult just to produce a consistent sound that I
liked without it dissolving into a crack or squawk. This was exacerbated by the
fact that I was playing on a setup that didn't make things easy for me. When I
first got the horn I asked a more experienced saxophone player friend what
mouthpiece I should get, and he recommended a Selmer Super Session I. The local
Selmer dealer didn't have the I in stock, so I got a J. At the time, my
understanding was that having a harder setup would be good for me. But I
consistently found this mouthpiece really difficult to use. Later, once I
seriously took up soprano I went to a music store to try some mouthpieces and
ended up buying a new Otto Link Tone Edge 7. I had been playing an Otto Link on
tenor for awhile, so that's probably part of why this worked well for me, and I
also found the intonation was a lot easier to control. I'm still using the same
mouthpiece. I'm not one of those saxophone players who spends a lot of time
reevaluating their setup - I try to find something I like, and then just stick
When I did pick it up again, it was at the end of a period where I had given up
playing saxophone almost completely for an entire year. I was picking it up
with a sense of curiosity rather than ambition, and a willingness to sound as
bad as I needed to sound in order to finally figure out to play the instrument.
Playing the soprano turned out to be part of my path to rededicating myself to
a career in music. Somehow I feel much more free on the instrument. I think
this has a lot to to with the soprano's less standard usage in jazz. It feels
Why did you stop playing for a year? And also, how old were you at the time?
I was 26. It's hard to say. It was
largely a personal and emotional issue. I think I hadn't found the right
community of musicians with similar interests to play with in Wellington (there
are great musicians there, but I think I hadn't found the right part of the
scene) and I was very self critical, lacking confidence in my own aesthetic
sensibility. I felt like I had to be a virtuoso for anyone to care about what I
was doing as a saxophonist. Also, though I had been very interested in
composition for a long time, I wasn't actively pursuing my own projects, but
instead was doing mostly standards gigs with thrown together bands playing
background music, and I found it unsatisfying. Eventually the whole subject
became kind of emotionally charged for me and painful to think about, and I
decided I would be happier not doing music at all. I was interested in
completely changing careers at this point, and so I went back to University to explore
something else I had been passionate about, which was English literature and
After a year of that, I ended up
discovering that if I was going to go down a path related to my love of
writing, I was most interested in writing poetry - which is one of the few
things I can think of that is less financially viable than being a jazz
musician! Plus, I discovered that I wasn't as accomplished at it, at least not
yet - I just wasn't as far down the path. In the end, once I started playing music
again my need to write poetry disappeared. For me, both things satisfied a
similar urge that I have to be creative. I guess what I needed to start playing
music again was to realize that I still really wanted to express myself through
music and, knowing that, to fully accept my own limitations and decided to
evolve from there. Getting out of an environment where I had been feeling stuck
and going traveling definitely helped with that.
I don’t come across many jazz musicians from New Zealand. Is there a burgeoning
jazz scene there? If so, who are some of the players we should know about?
The New Zealand jazz scene is small but
pretty active, especially considering the size of the population (which is
tiny, about 4.5 million people). There are four different undergrad jazz
programs in the country pumping out new grads every year, plus a coterie of
more established players and teachers, many who have spent time working and
playing in Australia, the UK or the USA and brought that knowledge back home. One
downside to the scene is, due to New Zealand's fairly isolated position in the
world, the scene can get a bit stagnant, with comparatively few new musicians
coming and going as they would in larger cities in America or Europe.
You don't meet many kiwi jazz musicians in North America - it's more common for
kiwi's to move to Australia or the UK as its much easier immigration-wise.
Personally, I have an American mother, so that obstacle wasn't an issue for me.
Some of the more well known jazz exports from NZ include bassist Matt Penman,
sax player Hayden Chisholm, and pianists Mike Nock and Jonathan Crayford. Some
of the other kiwi sax players that are amongst my favorites (all who currently
live in NZ) include Reuben Derrick, Lucien Johnson, Blair Latham, and (of
course) Jeff Henderson, who has been a huge figure in nurturing the avant garde
free improv scene there.
How did you find your way from New
Zealand to New York--and now, Mexico?
I decided to move to NYC fairly impulsively, after I had spent several months
traveling around the United States. This was in a very transitional period in
my life, when I was uncertain what I wanted to do with myself or where I wanted
to live, shortly after I started seriously working on the soprano sax and
rediscovered my love for music. The initial reason for my trip to NY was to
take part in the school for improvisational music summer intensive, and before
I arrived I decided that while I was there I might as well try out living in
New York for awhile. I ended up staying for 2 years. The things that really
made me want to live in New York were the opportunities to hear live music, and
the amazing musicians I was meeting and playing with. It was a struggle as
well, working day jobs and trying to find time for my music, and I ended up
deciding to do my masters degree in composition at Wesleyan in Connecticut so I
could focus more on music. It was also close enough to maintain some degree of
connection to the NY scene. While at Wesleyan, I fell in love with one of my
fellow composers in the MA program, who is from Mexico, and I moved here to be
with him once we finished our studies in mid 2014.
Often times with soprano saxophone
specialists, they’re usually coming out of the New Orleans/Sidney Bechet thing,
or the avant garde/experimental thing. But your approach is different. It’s
neither period music nor is it experimental. It’s great “modern jazz” for lack
of a better term. Is that a correct assessment?
Thank you! It seems like a good
assessment to me. I think that perhaps one thing that's different about jazz in
New Zealand is that there's less of a traditionalist emphasis in jazz
education. At least for me, I learned to improvise first by using my ears, and
from the beginning I was encouraged to approach improvisation with what I would
call a compositional approach, rather than to be a perfect stylist, or to
exactly replicate the sound of players that I admired. I haven't listened
to a huge amount of early jazz and didn't really check out Sidney Bechet until
after my soprano sound was more developed, so he wasn't a big influence (though
one thing I love about earlier jazz is the strong melodic focus, and I do think
that's something that's present in my work). My soprano influences are mostly
Wayne Shorter and Steve Lacy, both of whom I relate to a lot because they are
also composers and their improvisation and composition are so connected. But
I've also been very influenced by singers, especially Joni Mitchell. Speaking
of the avant garde, I'm drawn a lot more to consonance than most people in the
so called 'avant garde' - but I do feel like I have many common interests with
people who are part of that community. Basically, I don't think about my music
in terms of genre, and whenever I'm called to it's a bit confusing. I guess I
would call it contemporary chamber jazz with a strong melodic emphasis.
I’ve found that many players that have come
out of the Wesleyan University scene, tend to be very much influenced by the
experimental aesthetics of Anthony Braxton. But you have something very unique.
It sounds modern, fresh, and with a strong sense of melody and groove. Again,
let me know if I’m off base.
Well, the Wesleyan composition scene
definitely has a long history of experimentalism, including a lot of computer
music and post Cage experimental music as well as Braxton's musical world. I
arrived there interested in learning about those things but without knowing too
much about any of them. I think people have an idea of what the Wesleyan sound
or aesthetic is, but as my advisor Paula Matthusen said to me, "the point
is that there is no style." I wanted to work with Braxton, and was lucky
enough to be his teaching assistant for a semester and to have him as one of my
thesis advisors. Probably a lot of the Wesleyan composers who worked with
Braxton went there having already been writing in a musical world that was more
similar to his than mine was, but the fact that my music was much more
'straight ahead' didn't seem to be a problem for our working relationship. One
great thing about Braxton is that he can discuss anyone's music, but he'll do
it through a very unique lens and with his own terminology. I learned a lot
from our conversations, from his lectures, and especially from playing his
music in his Wesleyan ensemble class. I really admire the breadth of his
conceptual thinking - he's so creative in his approaches to structuring music.
Anyway, to elaborate on the lack of an overtly 'experimental' aesthetic in my
music, something that I sometimes find difficult about experimental or avant
garde music (particularly free improvisation) is that it's often very dense,
and I am really drawn to clarity and space. While I like to use free elements
in my music, I'm most interested in free time as juxtaposed against metric
time, or in some kind of combination of the two. I'm interested in dissonance
as contrasted with consonance - an hour of dissonant music is not usually going
to be my favorite thing. All this being said, I recorded 'Fortune Songs' before
arriving at Wesleyan, so I expect it will be the next album I record that
demonstrates how I have reconciled (or not reconciled) what I learned at
Wesleyan with my existing style.
Let’s talk about your project Towering
Poppies. How did this project come about? Did you take your working band into
the studio or did you record it and then developed the music afterwards?—which
is sometimes the case.
Towering Poppies was a band that I
started more or less by accident. I called a session with some friends,
including two musicians I met in 2008 at the Banff International workshop in
Jazz and creative music, and then nobody brought anything to play except me, so
we just played a few of my compositions. Then I found a gig for us, and then
another, and it grew from there. We had been playing together for perhaps 5
months or so before we went into the studio to record. So a number of those
pieces had been in our live repertoire for a little while, though a couple were
written fairly quickly before the recording session. We've continued to work on
and develop the same repertoire, and new repertoire, since then. We haven't
played in quite a while as I now live in Mexico, but I'm planning to be back in
NY for a visit later in 2015 so I hope to pick up where we left off then.
What challenges did you find as a
soprano player trying to break onto the New York jazz scene? We all know it’s
already difficult playing the alto and tenor saxes, but I imagine just playing
the soprano, it becomes double the challenge.
Well, for me I would say that it wasn't
my goal in the first place to 'break onto the New York Scene' - that sounds
terrifying! When I arrived in New York I was in a very adventurous point in my
life, and I really just wanted to have the experience of living there for a
while. Whilst there I reconnected with various people that I had met at Banff,
and those people would become my friends and collaborators from that point on.
It was the people I was playing with, and all of the energy and great music I
heard while living in the city, that combined to give me the inspiration to
start performing my music. Playing only soprano doesn't seem to me like an
obvious choice if you want to do a lot of work as a sideman, but that wasn't
what I was looking to do. I identify as a composer as much or more so than as a
saxophone player, and I was pretty clear by that point that what interested me
about music was playing original music, so that was the only thing I focused on
Do people think that it’s strange that
you’re a soprano specialist? Or maybe they’re more used to it since I switched
to soprano 20 years ago.
I definitely think people are more used
to it since you switched, and of course because of Steve Lacy. I remember
meeting one person in New Zealand who only played soprano back when I was in
university and at the time I thought that was an odd choice. But by the time I
made that decision, it seemed like people in New York accepted it and dug it.
They didn't necessarily hire me for gigs, but that was ok because I didn't
expect them to. I was just focusing on what interested me, and trying to do
something that felt genuine and honest. I think one of the reasons the soprano
is a good fit for me is that I sang a lot before I played saxophone, and when I
sing I'm a soprano. So the transition from my singing voice to my playing voice
is more seamless this way. And generally, the music I compose seems to fit well
within the soprano range.
This makes a lot of sense….
Regarding your set-up, what kind of
horn, mouthpiece and reed do you play on?
My soprano is a newish Selmer, a super
action 80 series 2. My tenor (which was my main instrument previously) is also
a new Selmer (series 3) so it was a comfortable transition as far as the
keywork. I was fortunate that my first soprano is a really nice one and, as
mentioned earlier, once I find something I like, I just stick with it. My
mouthpiece, as mentioned earlier, is a new Otto Link Tone Edge 7 - just
straight out of the box, it hasn't been refaced or anything, though I'm kind of
intrigued about the idea of having that done. I generally play Vandoren blue
box #3 reeds. I also use a Cebulla neckstrap, which I love. For a while there I
was playing without a neckstrap, but I definitely like using this one a lot
I think the most important thing in a
setup is that everything is in good working order and also, especially for
beginners, not too extreme (no super hard reeds or super open mouthpieces). I
like my setup because it is what I'm used to, and over time working with it I
have developed a sound on it that I like. The sound I'm looking for is quite
direct, not too bright, not too reedy, just a straight, natural tone.
Many people who play soprano, doublers
and specialists, often struggle with intonation. What kinds of things do you do
to "tame the wild bore," as Lacy used to say?
Working on intonation is definitely an
ongoing process on soprano. For me, the first step was accepting the
out-of-tuneness and continuing to play anyway, feeling out the natural
tendencies of the instrument and listening to what it wanted to do
intonation-wise. Other things that I think can be quite crucial are figuring
out where to place the mouthpiece on the cork, and of course the formation of
the embouchure (figuring out the right amount of pressure). I don't have any
hard and fast rules about these things, but I learned a lot from trial and
error, a few hints from teachers and also reading various perspectives about
this online (the Sax on the Web forum is a wealth of information!)
I really love Steve Lacy's book
'Findings,' and I've really enjoyed some of the exercizes in there,
particularly 'bugle boy,' which is great for comparing intonation between 5ths
and octaves through the whole range of the horn. I've also spent
time working out by playing long notes with a chromatic tuner. I
think it's important to practice intonation in real life situations as well, by
playing with other people (ideally starting with something slow, so the pitch
has a chance to settle and you can really listen) and also by playing along
with recordings. I remember playing along with Joni Mitchell songs at times
when I was trying to work on my intonation, and it made the process a bit more
fun and musical.
I've noticed that many saxophonists who have chosen to make the soprano their
main instrument are people who think outside the box, or at least try to create
their own box. What's your take on it?
Yes, that resonates with me. I am
definitely seeking to create my own box rather than fitting into a pre existing
one. Most of the musicians I most admire and am most interested have (according
to my interpretation) gone their own way, listened to their inner voice and
ended up in interesting places because of it. I hope to do the same.
As you may or may nor know, playing solo
has become a very concentrated area of focus for me over the past eight years
or so. Do you have any plans to record or perform in solo pieces? As a soprano
player, it seems almost i-n-e-v-i-t-a-b-l-e.
Oh no, I had no idea it was inevitable!
Joking of course, but for me playing solo is quite terrifying. That probably
means it would be beneficial to do it. It's something I would like to spend
some time working on for sure, though there are no plans for a solo album at
Fair enough. And let me ask you this: What major thing
would like to accomplish in the next five years?
Shorter term (in the next year or so)
my goal is to release a new album - I'm planning a recording session for that
in April, so preparing for that will be a big focus until then. More generally
speaking, I would say my goal is to integrate what I focused on in my MA in
composition (which was mostly writing fully composed and chamber music) with my
practice as a jazz composer and improvisor. I'm continuing to study composition
here in Mexico as part of a workshop with Hebert Vázquez, and there is a lot
more I would like to learn about composition and orchestration from the western
classical and new music realm. I also hope to realize some music for large
Lastly, I’m going to list some soprano players, that you may or may not
know, and I want you to tell me the first word that pops into your mind.
I have to confess
that I am not familiar with several of these soprano players. I'm realizing
that I haven't made checking out other soprano players much of a priority -
maybe out of a fear of being influenced of intimidated. Anyway, thank you for
the list, and I will take this as a cue to spend time checking out those that I
am not familiar with!
Steve Lacy - space
Evan Parker - squawk
Branford Marsalis - power
Dave Liebman - evolution
Lol Coxhill - (no answer)
Michel Doneda - (no answer)
Lucky Thompson - (no answer)
Sidney Bechet - joy
Thanks, Jamine, for doing this interview. I’m looking
forward to hearing more from you in the future.
And please check out a track from Jasmine's CD, Fortunes.