The Sky’s the Limit! The Soprano Saxophone in Jazz By Andrew J. Allen

By Andrew J. Allen

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When most people hear the words “soprano saxophone” and “jazz,” all too often a single, curly-haired individual comes to mind. However, the instrument has a long, storied history. Today, it has incredible expressive potential in any modern style, both in small group and big band settings.

History

The soprano has had a place in the jazz world longer than perhaps any other saxophone. When the clarinet was still the dominant woodwind during the New Orleans era, Sidney Bechet bought a soprano to compete with the higher volumes of his cornet and trombone-playing band mates. However, he and the other early proponents of the instrument adopted a playing style that was virtually analogous to the scaler clarinet playing of the time.

With the rise of the standardized AATTB saxophone section of the big band in the 1930s, the soprano took a back-seat. However, even the brightest stars of the swing era occasionally played the instrument. Johnny Hodges of the Duke Ellington band was an especially ardent and artful sopranist.

Despite a few bright spots, however, the soprano would only begin to find its stride as a solo voice in the 1950s and ‘60s. Perhaps the first great modern proponent of the instrument was Steve Lacy, whose modern jazz and avant garde recordings introduced the soprano as a force to be reckoned with in post-bop. Of course, perhaps the most recognizable performance of all time on the instrument came with John Coltrane’s masterful, Indian-influenced take on “My Favorite Things.” None could argue against the instrument as a forceful means of modern jazz expression afterwards.

Since Coltrane, a wealth of incredible saxophonists have used the soprano to one degree or another. Perhaps the most prominent are Wayne Shorter, Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Kenny Garrett, and Branford Marsalis. The instrument has found a permanent home as a frequent double of the lead alto player, thanks to Dick Oatts and his wonderful playing with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band, and, later, the Village Vanguard Orchestra. Today, the soprano stands equally among the other saxophones as a viable expressive voice.

Equipment

For those wishing to explore the soprano for themselves, a few pieces of advice can make the journey easier. In terms of instruments, the soprano has made great gains in recent years. While many players have success on legendary instruments of the past, modern horns have vastly improved intonation, playability, and ergonomics. Three advisable brands are Selmer Paris, Yamaha, and Yanagisawa. While many other labels exist, some of them are inferior products. When in doubt, consult an expert.

Mouthpieces are another area of concern. As in life, moderation is best. Extremely closed or extremely open mouthpieces can perhaps achieve narrow ends well, but there will be sacrifices in response, intonation, and flexibility. A medium chamber and a medium facing and lay are advisable. Again, many players prefer vintage or custom mouthpieces, but most people have success with modestly-priced, established brands, such as Otto Link or Vandoren. In reeds, as well, excessively soft or hard reeds can often cause problems. Stick with established brands for best results. This author plays on a Vandoren V16 S7 with a 2 1/2 Vandoren V16 reed. On this moderate set-up, any style at any volume is possible, with great flexibility and intonation.

Getting It Together

The old canard for soprano is a grouse on intonation. There is nothing in particular about the instrument that would suggest intonation would be a problem. With proper work, any player can put this worry behind them. Along with all of the advice below, the aspiring sopranist should spend time every day with both a visual tuner and an electronic drone or piano.

Along with intonation, sound is of paramount importance. The saxophonist new to the soprano should identify several tonal role models who exhibit a great, individual tone and superb intonation. A list of four or five players, according to the taste of the individual, should be developed. Deep listening should commence, not with the goal of copying any player’s sound, but with the purpose of learning what a great soprano sound can be, from many different angles.

In addition to listening, the developing soprano player should spend considerable time on long-tones. A particular favorite of this author for any saxophone in either jazz or classical styles is Larry Teal’s The Saxophonist’s Workbook, a wonderful classic for sound development. Overtone exercises and extensive scalar and pattern-based study should follow to truly gain a mastery of the instrument. For there, the sky is the limit, with any style of playing open to explore. The soprano saxophone is an equal voice in modern jazz and can inspire you to find your own artistic voice!

Andrew J. Allen is an assistant professor of music at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. Dr. Allen has premiered nearly twenty works for saxophone and has performed and lectured at the World Saxophone Congress, the International Saxophone Symposium, the National Association of College Wind, and Percussion Instructors Conference, and national and regional gatherings of the North American Saxophone Alliance and the College Music Society. He currently performs with the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra, the Lone Star Wind Orchestra, SAGA Quartet, Rogue Two, and the Allen Duo. In addition, his writings have appeared in JAZZed, The Saxophone Symposium, The NACWPI JournalSchool Band and OrchestraSaxophone Today, and the TBA Review, and he has served as a clinician at gatherings of the North Dakota, South Dakota, and Texas Music Education Associations. His debut album with saxophone/percussion duo Rogue Two is forthcoming on Equilibrium Records. Dr. Allen currently serves as editor of The NACWPI Journal and is a member of the editorial board of The Saxophone Symposium. Dr. Allen is a Conn-Selmer artist-clinician and performs exclusively on Selmer Paris saxophones and Vandoren mouthpieces, ligatures, and reeds. Learn more at www.allensax.com

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