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A Five Solo Exploration of The Soprano Saxophone

"The soprano saxophone is a higher-register variety of the saxophone and is the third-smallest member of the saxophone family."

The soprano saxophone has a shorter history in jazz than the other members of the saxophone family. The soprano is arguably the most difficult saxophone to master, and it is often played poorly by even the finest saxophonists. It’s a devil to play in tune, and a challenge to play both live and in the recording studio. With an eye towards the history of the soprano I am going to lead you on an exploration of the soprano sax. These pieces and recordings reflect my own journey to attain excellence on this challenging yet rewarding tiny instrument.

Curved vs. Straight Soprano Sax?

I’ve played many different types of soprano’s over the 4 plus decades I've wrestled with the little devil. I originally started on a Yamaha 62 straight soprano, playing mostly classical saxophone quartet music with the now long forgotten Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orechestra. I’ve detailed my ten year journey with the Whales here. That horn, which I purchased new in 1981, had it’s share of intonation problems. While the palm keys were easy to access, and the pitch in general was decent, there was a glaring problem with this instrument….the middle open C# was quite flat, making the transition from that C# to the middle D a nightmare. When I see that instrument around these days I just cringe, I pity the poor person who sunk money into that horn. It’s never going to play that interval to any professional standard. And…..Yamaha knew it. Maybe 4 or 5 years later I got rid of that lemon, I know that’s harsh but that horn was just not properly engineered or road tested, and bought the slightly curved neck Yamaha 62 that came out. Wayne Shorter was using that horn for a while in Weather Report, and while this issue was slightly improved, it was still a significant problem. I suffered with that horn until the late 1990’s, when I finally got rid of it. Eventually in the early 1990's Yamaha put out a very good soprano, the Yamaha Custom. This horn is a significant upgrade, I played a black lacquered one many years ago and I wish at that time I'd bought it. You can learn more about this instrument here:

Yamaha Custom Soprano Saxophone Models EX 875 and 82 Z

Selmer Mark VI

Many players have found varying degrees of success with the Selmer Mark VI soprano sax. To my mind the most notable is Paul McCandless, who has always played this horn with impeccable taste and precision. Somehow he has mastered the awkward palm keys that are on this model, and his recordings to me are among the finest examples of soprano greatness. In general Selmer saxophones are a variable bunch, often with pitch problems. They are also generally very fat sounding and would probably be a good choice for most jazz players if you are able to overcome the difficulties of holding and playing a straight soprano with no neckstrap. While I do not have any personal experience with a Selmer Mark VI soprano myself I would love to get my hands on a couple to try just for the experience. Maybe someone out there reading on the Internet can add a comment regarding their experience with this horn.

The Curved Soprano

I did experiment with a Conn curved soprano for many years with varying degrees of success, that instrument is pictured above at the top of this post with the blue background. Master photographer Paul Schraub took this photo and what a fabulous shot it is. This horn also had it's share of intonation issues, but I learned some very valuable lessons playing it over the years. The two great things about this instrument is the curved (typical) saxophone shape allows you to hear this instrument better in louder musical environments as the sound is right there in your face, and how well this saxophone interacts with a single microphone. Live it couldn't be beat for the even sound you could capture with either a clip on mic or a single mic on a stand in front of you. Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek (above) has played a curved soprano for decades and his sound is incredible. Do take the time to check out his solo recordings on ECM Records and his work with Keith Jarrett in Keith's European Quartet, also on ECM.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the early contributions of both Sydney Bechet, the great New Orleans clarinetist and saxophonist, and Ellington Band lead alto Johnny Hodges, to the soprano sax canon. My take is neither did anything revolutionary with the soprano, instead extending their stylistic personalities on their respective major instruments through their efforts with this instrument. Bechet’s best work to me is on his early clarinet recordings, and his wide vibrato on the soprano to me spoils the listening experience.

There just is not enough documented Johnny Hodges soprano work to make any sort of realistic judgement about his playing, so for the purposes of this blog post I am leaving these two out of the conversation. I do want to acknowledge their pioneering work and brave foray into the soprano universe at such an early point in the evolution of jazz, but to me the modern soprano sax pantheon starts with Steve Lacy, an admitted admirer of Bechet, in 1957.

Now onto some soprano saxophone solos that changed my life and that very well might change yours as well!

1. Steve Lacy-Soprano Sax, 1957. Rockin’ In Rhythm, Prestige Records, PRLP 7125

It takes some patience and an open mind to get a handle on Steve Lacy’s playing and music in general. His long career and numerous varied recordings are a huge meal to digest. However there is no denying that he was the first to specialize on the soprano, and that his recordings reveal a quest for musical horizons not previously heard. His main influence was Thelonius Monk, and he very successfully channeled Monk’s spirit through his recordings of Monk tunes. However digging deeper into Lacy reveals his love of early jazz, through his connection to Dixieland music. Soprano Sax, his first recording as a leader, is a watershed outing that displays his early mastery of the soprano, and his still developing command of the instrument. I particularly like his version of Rockin’ In Rhythm on this recording, a tune made famous by the Ellington Band. This is a perfect tune to begin to grasp Lacy’s sound and style; writing out this transcription allowed me to begin to hear his conception and gravitate towards his music.

Over the years Lacy developed all sorts of different styles and made a huge variety of recordings, not all of which appeal to me. But I do admire the man, and I heard him twice in concert with his Trio at Kuumbwa Jazz Center just a few short years before he passed away. At that point, late in his life, his playing was filled with emotion and poignancy, and it was a revelation to hear where he’d arrived at with his music. His compositions were incredible, his tone, phrasing and intonation were impeccable, and he gave off a powerful presence. It was an honor to hear him at this point.

Steve also wrote a fascinating book that sheds a lot of light on his approach to music and the soprano sax, called Findings, My Experience With The Soprano Saxophone. Published in 1994 by Outre Mesure, this hard to find compendium will convince you of Lacy’s commitment to and mastery of the soprano sax. It’s no accident that David Liebman, himself one of the greats on soprano, refers to Lacy as the Soprano King in the liner notes to his revolutionary recording The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner. An interesting aspect of this work is the manuscripts of several of his original compositions which show how he integrated through composed material and freer improvisation. I did this transcription of Gloompot once I'd digested the information in his book. You can find this tune on Steve's 1998 recording Sands on Tzadik Records. This record is a great example of Lacy's later, more mature style and I suggest you seek it out and give it a listen.

There is just not a lot of debate that the recording that brought the soprano sax front and center to the jazz world was John Coltrane's My Favorite Things.

You can find a great transcription of this solo in this wonderful book by Carl Coan. The genius of Coltrane is on display here; the extended techniques and sheer virtuosity of this solo are what set it apart at such an early point in the evolution of this instrument.

It's not difficult to see how this solo ushered in the era of the soprano that extends through Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman and so many others. Simply put this is the birth of the modern soprano sax style; if you aspire to play the soprano you should be fully aware of this watershed work.

3. Paul McCandless-Robin, Premonition, 199201934/10140-2. Windham Hill Jazz 1992

Paul McCandless is best known for his work with the pioneering world jazz group Oregon. An incredible oboist, composer, bass clarinetist, and English hornist, Paul is often overlooked for his soprano sax work, which is in abundant evidence on nearly every Oregon recording. Premonition is Paul’s fifth solo recording, and it is an incredible document of his originals. Featuring fantastic production and a band featuring Lyle Mays and Steve Rodby, and Steve Cardenas makes this one terrific modern sounding recording. Robin, the first tune on the record, is a perfect introduction to Paul’s composing and soprano talents. Notice the long form of the tune itself and the liberal use of slash chords.

4. Paul Winter-Canyon Lullaby, 1997. Living Music, marketed by Windham Hill group. #01048-81504-2

And now for something completely different. Paul Winter is known for his group the Paul Winter Consort, which by the way rocketed to fame with the album Icarus (, a recording that provided the genesis of Oregon. That’s a story for another day, however Canyon Lullaby is best explained here by Wikipedia:

“In 1985, Paul Winter recorded Canyon in a naturally reverberant side canyon of the Grand Canyon that he nicknamed "Bach's Canyon". The album featured the Paul Winter Consort. In 1996, he returned to the canyon to create an album of solo saxophone improvisations. (Canyon Lullaby) The album was a musical representation of a period of 24 hours in the canyon. To help create this feeling, Winter played at different times during the day and night.”

Known for his work with whales and for mixing musical compositions with nature, Winter created this at times long winded recording of purely improvised solo soprano saxophone pieces in the Grand Canyon. The first track, Canyon Chaccone, is a very interesting and inspiring work. It should be noted this entire recording was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Age Album. The organ part was overdubbed later and really gives this piece it's eerie foundation. This is a very interesting and artistic statement that really shows off the soprano well. I can't say how much I admire this particular piece of music, it's really wonderful. You can hear it here:

The Yanagisawa 992 Soprano Sax/Bronze Bell

Without question Gary Bartz is a masterful alto saxophone player, but it’s his soprano playing that I’ve gravitated to over the years. While I love his Coltrane influenced alto work his soprano playing has been extremely influential on me, and his recording Soprano Stories is a must listen for anyone hoping to get a sense of how well the soprano can be played. Coming Back, by Hank Mobley, is a perfect vehicle for his soprano playing. An interesting note here….I went to see a band led by pianist George Cables in San Francisco in the early 2000’s, the exact year escapes me now. I was sitting next to an older gentleman, and we started talking jazz. I was immediately impressed with his knowledge of the music, he was equally impressed that I’d studied with Joe Henderson. He introduced himself as Orrin, and I immediately knew who he was. Orrin Keepnews is a legendary record label owner and record producer.

After the first set Orrin asked if I’d like to go back and talk to Gary and George. We went backstage where Orrin was warmly greeted by the musicians, and I was promptly introduced to both George and Gary. I mentioned to Gary that he sounded great on that curved soprano, which he then showed to me. It was a Yanigisawa 992 curved soprano with a bronze bell, and he mentioned that it was a prototype that would be on the market shortly. I was impressed by how well in tune Gary sounded on that instrument, and also how great the clip on microphone he had on the bell sounded as well. The next day I preordered that horn from Woodwind and Brasswind.

Soprano Stories is a must have recording for soprano sax enthusiasts. Very difficult to find, this disc shows off Gary's mastery of the soprano in a variety of styles on mostly standards, the one exception being the first tune, Soprano Story.

Coming Home is an example of a prime example of Gary's soulful playing, here on a well known Hank Mobley tune. I love the way Gary infuses this tune with his great harmonic sensibility that draws upon the blues in places. To me this represents some of the finest soprano work on record, and the entire recording showcases his talents admirably. Worth the trouble to hunt this recording down, you won't be sorry if you do.

Needless to say I've just scratched the surface of the world of the soprano saxophone. I believe this post can be a jumping off point for aspiring soprano saxophonists to delve deeper into the pantheon. To that end I will provide a bread crumb trail for those of you eager to go farther on your own.

Further explorations of the soprano saxophone:

Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter-1+1-Just an incredible Verve recording where you can hear some very intimate Wayne Shorter soprano, including the amazing tune Aung Sn Suu Kyi.

Zoot Sims-Soprano Sax-Swing style El Supremo, Zoot developed his soprano playing late in his career, and this Pablo recording is the pinnacle of his work on soprano. Again, hard to find but worth the effort.

David Liebman-The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner-Good gracious this is another must listen. Genius work by Liebman, overdubs, multiphonics, just about every nuance and challenge taken on in this great career defining statement. Liebs as much as anyone defines the modern soprano style, be sure to check out everything you can of his.

Branford Marsalis-I love Branford's soprano playing, particularly in places on the two Buckshot LeFonque recordings. You can find him also on soprano as a sideman with Sting and Bruce Hornsby, as well as on his many solo outings.

Anything and everything that Jan Garbarek has recorded on soprano sax are must listens.

I hope you enjoy the unique material presented in this post aaaaand....

As always, thanks for stopping by my blog...Markos

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