Have you ever wondered about the setups other saxophonists are playing on soprano?
NOW you can find out!
During this installment, we will be talking shop with soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. Gianni, who is based in the Milano area of Italy, is a genuine renaissance artist. His accomplishments are voluminous. First off, his level of soprano playing is top tier. Like many specialists, he is heavily influenced by the late Steve Lacy. In fact, Gianni switched to the soprano in 1994 after having taken numerous lessons with him.
As a composer and improviser, Gianni has a large body of work ranging from freely improvised solo saxophone pieces, to more intricately composed chamber music. In addition, he runs his indie label Amirani Records, on which he sometimes releases two to three CDs per year. And to top it off, he is also a saxophone repairman.
As a performer, Gianni also tours extensively throughout Europe and the US, collaborating with such luminaries as Peter Brötzmann, Enzo Rocco, Harri Sjöström, Alison Blunt, and many, many, others.
So I am extremely grateful he was generous enough to take time from his busy schedule to talk shop with us.
Sam Newsome: Gianni, let's get right to it. So what kind of soprano do you play and how long have you been playing it?
Gianni Mimmo: My main horn is a Selmer SA III. I bought it in 1994, and it’s still my preferred one, but I owned a lot of soprano saxes including a gold-plated Conn from the late 20s, a number of Mark VI, Yanagisawa Elimona, Yamaha 62 and custom models, King, Buescher and a Martin too. I recently also modified a silver Mark VI working on ergonomics, which is a project that was lying for years in my closet.
But I’m stuck on that SAIII, it’s not the best, but the relationship is more challenging, in a way. I lately dedicate some practicing on a Selmer SA I which is pretty good too.
Gianni's Selmar SA III with the detachable necks
SN: What is it about this particular instrument that was the deal breaker?
GM: The complexity of the sound, a sort of blessed disorder in the overtones. It was new, but promising a lot. Other horns in the shop were more explicit, but already assertive, tending to drive the player, in a way. The one I chose was harder but elegant. The only flaw is the weight.
The tone had some geometric resonance to my taste…
SN: You said that the Selmer SA III is “not the best,” which I can relate to. Do you feel because you specialize on the soprano that you’re better equipped to play an instrument with more challenges, consequently, making you work harder for a sound, which ends up being more personal?
GM: Yes I’d say it’s for that reason. I owned some great soprano saxophones:
I recall the Conn, a gold-plated one, that was really fantastic: the tone, the dynamics, the subtleness of its medium range. The keyboard wasn’t that ergonomically easy because it was a very old design as the project dated back in the 20’s, but the sound was really something. Although it made me play “old style” in a way: Everything was too velvet, a little bit too perfect. It affected my phrasing, and after a little bit, I thought I was playing the way the Conn wanted.
This SA III I’m playing now is one of the first of that series Selmer made.
It needs more attention, I had to work a lot to get a decent tone on it. It’s like a jealous woman, and it turns its face on the other side if I don’t play it for a couple of days. It still has some mysterious areas and a number of frequent little surprises that ask for your continued attention.
But it’s a relationship, I cultivate it day by day.
SN: What kind of mouthpiece do you play on? Or do you have a few in your arsenal?
GM: I play a Selmer Soloist that has been refaced by Filippo Bucci in Rome to a .067. All mouthpieces I played in the last 20 years are actually a development of a couple of squeeze chamber mouthpieces that Jon Van Wie refaced for me in the late 90s. I really loved his work, and I was really sad when he passed away. I always looked for that flexibility. My impression is that flexibility means a lot of clarity in the sound, but it also needs to be driven. After a little bit, I started looking for darkening the sound, just to round up a bit the projection. My opening range looks to be between .064 and .070. It seems as though I prefer a thin front rail.
I own six or seven mouthpieces, I actually had a lot, but my arsenal is limited to those ones now. I’ve another couple of Soloists, a current production HR Otto link, a very unusual chambered Meyer, another Link, another Meyer Joe Giardullo refaced for me.
All of them have been accurately refaced following my boring requests…I’ve to say I also spent some time experimenting with different necks: the SAIII is a detachable neck model.
I always play straight necks, but I’m intrigued by how different metals and/or shapes can affect the sound and its nuances.
Gianni's primary mouthpiece, the Selmer SA III
SN: How is this mouthpiece different from what you previously played on?
GM: I sometimes switch to another Soloist, but the two mouthpieces are very, very similar. What is changing is the subtleness of the resistance in the attack. How high is that initial step? Sometimes I get a more bodied tone with this second mouthpiece, probably I lose a lit bit of flexibility. They’re very close each other, and the listener wouldn’t recognize the difference. And sometimes the player as well!
SN: Do you find that having so many mouthpieces to be a distraction, or are you pretty disciplined. Personally, I’m not disciplined when it comes to this sort of thing, so I tend not to give myself options.
GM: They’re not distracting. Actually, they’re very similar as I restricted my research on certain facing and chamber size. The main differences lay in the matching relationship between that facing and the chamber size and shape. These are subtle things after all.
Gianni's Meyer, Otto Link, Selmer, and Meyer
SN: Now, ligatures. Do you have a collection of them, or do you play what came with the mouthpiece?
GM: I play several ligatures, I also invented one which is my main one.
They have a different kind of response quickness, resistance, projection, and warmth. In my saxophone case, I keep three of them: The one I invented, the one Mr. Ishimori made for my mouthpiece, and the last model Marc Jean did.
Gianni's collection of ligatures
SN: Is the Gianni Mimmo ligature available for public consumption? Or is this particular ligature something that was tailor made for your personal needs and taste?
GM: Masterclip ligature is really the result of years of research and experiments. I’m still keeping about 70 experimental models that drove me to its final and actual form. Yes is available on order, no problem. Each ligature is handmade and takes two hours and a half to be made.
Gianni's own Masterclip ligature
SN: Reeds are often a never-ending problem for saxophonists. First, what brand (or brands of) reeds do you use? And secondly, do find soprano reeds to be more forgiving or more temperamental than reeds for the other saxes?
GM: Reeds are the very problem for me: I think I played all brands of reeds in the world. I also did a long research on synthetic ones, and I’ve been playing Hahn synthetic reeds for years. The second series Mr. Hahn did were really fantastic, and many of my albums have been recorded playing those reeds. After that Hahn production discontinued, I came back to cane reeds: When I started dedicating myself to soprano sax only almost 30 years ago, I was playing Marca and Vandoren reeds. I’m now playing Vandoren Java reeds mostly, but I’m not stuck with them: it’s a constant re-adjustment. Rigotti cane is great, but I can’t find the proper strength, in a way.
I’ve been positively impressed by Steuer Reeds, I’ve still to dig the thing a little bit…
For my playing, the soprano reed is more temperamental than on alto and tenor. Anyway, I’ve to say that if one wants flexibility and bodied sound at the same time, a sort of compromise must be found. I’m pretty patient after all. But I like to understand the design of a reed, the thickness of the spine, profile, etc. It’s an interesting thing.
Gianni's Vandoren Java reeds
SN: That’s all very fascinating. I’m curious, after playing on the Hahn synthetic reeds for so many years, was it difficult trying to get used to cane again?
GM: No, it wasn’t difficult. Of course, you have to spend a couple of hours just to understand how less geometric is the cane and how the cane reed tends to decay in less time. It wasn’t that difficult to manage.
SN: Also, one concern many have of playing synthetic reeds on soprano is that the sound is too bright and sometimes too harsh. Did you find this to be the case?
GM: Yes that’s the risk with synthetic reeds and actually what generally happens. Mr. Hahn was really doing something different. I really liked his second series production, and I continued playing them for few years after that production. The idea to work on high-density foam and to reproduce on it the cell design of the Arundo donax is simply marvelous.
I know very well other brands, carbon fiber ones, injection molding ones, hybrid natural-synthetic ones, etc., but for some reasons, mainly the consistency of the medium range, I preferred those reeds.
A well-done synthetic reed is usually offering great flexibility. It is very symmetrical, and all the overtones and the altissimo range are usually where the player expects to find them. On the other hand, the sound leaks a little bit in the medium range, becoming less bodied and bright-- harsher, in a way. This is more noticeable on soprano and much less on the baritone or on the bass clarinet for instance.
SN: What are your thoughts about equipment obsession, in general? Because some believe it's all about the equipment, and some think you can make anything work if just work at it. So I'm just wondering if you feel that having so many possibilities is making us lazier? Feel free to unpack this however you like.
GM: My starting position is always to work with/on what you have. The work will tell you which if you need to improve your equipment, which element of it. One should refine his or her attention to sound and make proper choices. As a painter does try a new brush, or a larger spatula and understanding how that particular tool will adequately help to express the thing he feels. The relationship between the player, horn, mouthpiece, reed, and the ligature, is a kind of constellation, I think. When you touch one parameter, all the system is affected, someway. Finding the right balance among all the components is always a struggle.
Some aspects are more important for the player than for the listener. What seems so important from behind the horn and makes us tell ourselves stories like, " Wow! This ligature is so sensitive!" or "This is finally the reed I was looking for, " is sometimes un-relevant for the listener as it doesn’t change the complexity of the delivered sound image. Attention to detail is often closely related to player parameters: brightness in the horn high range or ease in lower dynamics are typical examples.
I need a certain number of uncertainties to give my best, I don’t want to be completely comfortable: the goal is “good quality in what I’m doing.” The answer does not lie in the equipment only, of course, but in a good relationship with all the involved elements. When a musician becomes more conscious, his steps will be more accurate.
SN: Many may not know this, but in addition to being one of the top soprano players playing today, you’re also a saxophone repairman. Do you find that having this much knowledge about the inner workings of the saxophone to be a blessing or a curse?
GM: Repairing, restoring, and rebuilding saxophones have been a blessing. That work drove me right inside the sound and made me know different musicians and their peculiar and personal approach to the horn. After so many years, it still feels like a form of meditation to me. It helps me to give each saxophone character a sort of sound-image that I like to describe to myself. It’s also great to listen to great masters, considering how their style can be affected by the horn they’re playing.
I do pretty much the same when I observe certain painters work, considering how their style is developing through the use of different brushes or special tools.
Gianni wearing his saxophone repairman hat
SN: Lastly, please let us know what you've been up to lately. Any new CDs, groups, projects?
GM: I’m leaving for a tour in Japan with Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura. The trio album with pianist Satoko Fujii and double bassist Joe Fonda will be released on next month for Long Song Records. Within the year, two additional records will be released: my duo with Vinny Golia, and a new Italian trio called Clairvoyance
, with pianist Silvia Corda and double-bass player Adriano Orrù, will be out on my label Amirani Records. The next year my Sestetto Internazionale
, whose album has been so well received and reviewed, will be on tour in Germany and North Europe.
I’m so intrigued by writing graphic scores and hopefully premiering my work Prossime Trascendenze
for chamber quintet and sextet soon!
SN: That sounds amazing. I'm looking forward to hearing it. And thanks, again for sharing your insight and wisdom. It's been an inspiration and a great learning experience.
And please check out some of Gianni's recent recordings on Amirani Records