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

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Great Mouthpiece Fallacy

 There have probably been few professional saxophonists on the planet who have not had a mouthpiece obsession at some point. I’ll certainly claim my part in what seems to be an inevitable ritual of obsession. I remember moments while still a young tenor player in my mid- to late-twenties, changing mouthpieces during the same tune. And what made it even more insane, is that these were mouthpieces that had very little aesthetical overlap. Had I been switching back and forth between two Otto Link 7s, or even an Otto Link 7 and 7*, I’m sure one could see the justification. These two pieces won’t yield two sonically disparate results. I could conceivably discover that one is easier to play than the other, or than one gets better projection, or  that one is easier to play in tune. But what I did was hardly the case. There were times that I was going back and forth between a metal Berg Larsen and hard rubber Selmer. Or a metal Dave Guardala and a hard rubber Vandoren. Of course the resulting affect was something to be desired.

So my point in airing all of my dirty mouthpiece laundry is to simply say that I understand the obsession.

What I have discovered during these moments of sound seeking neurosis is that no matter how strong the love affair at the beginning of your mouthpiece courtship, eventually you wind up with the same sound that you were frustrated with when playing you old mouthpiece.

For this simple reason, I'm left to conclude:  Your sound in between your ears, not inside your mouthpiece.

And let me not downplay the importance of having a good mouthpiece. If your set-up is faulty, then it could be like trying to pedal your bike up hill with one flat tire. But often times, that’s not the case. The mouthpiece obsession we sometimes have comes from our quest for sonic perfection It comes from our desire to find Mr. Right.

This type of sonic utopia we aim for can be achieved. But not by finding the perfect mouthpiece, reed, and horn combination--the sound trifecta--but by listening. Yes, I know. It sounds too easy and too simple to be true. But it does work.

Here’s an interesting story: Once again, we’re going back to when I was budding young tenor man, looking to spread his sonic seed across the world. When I played tenor, I had absolutely no altissimo—a high G, at best. In fact, while I was playing in Terence Blanchard’s band, we used to play one of his tunes called “Azania.” Not a particularly difficult piece, but the melody went up to a high Ab in the last four bars. And needless to say, I missed it every time. Terence eventually realized after hearing me choke on this note, night after night, that playing it correctly was beyond the scope of what I was able to do at the time. If someone heard me today, if would be difficult to imagine I grappled with a problem so basic.

Now there we many reasons for me not being able to play in the altissimo during those days—improper embouchure, lack of breath support, lack of oral cavity awareness, or maybe just plain lameness—I’ll go there, too.  But in hindsight, I realize that the real culprit was NOT having a sonic reference. I only played the tenor. I didn’t listen to any high-pitched instruments at the time. There were few tenor players that I listened to that ever played in that register. And I didn’t play the flute, clarinet, or soprano—at least not of any consequence. So there was nothing between my ears that I could use as a sonic reference—Charlie Rouse, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter (on tenor) were useless with regards to this.

In fact, it wasn’t until I started playing the soprano regularly that I began being able to hear in the fourth octave. In some ways a little too well. I remember one particular instance, a few years after I had only been playing the soprano saxophone exclusively, I picked up the tenor sax for a few days. I can’t really remember why, I imagine that my soprano had some kind type of malfunction, which happened a lot back then, and I was probably just playing the tenor while it was being repaired. Thank god for Roberto Romeo! In any case, what I remember most vividly was that when I finally did pick up the tenor again after so many years, was how high I was able to play.  As a tenor player, the high Ab was a challenge. But now I was playing high Fs and Gs, with no problem. I attribute some of it to the development of my embouchure and most of it to my hearing. As I mentioned before, one of the problems I had with playing in the altissimo as a tenor player, is that I had no sonic reference. Now, I had only a high register reference.  It felt like the sky was the limit—which was a totally different ballgame. Now, what was strange is that I had no lower register reference. I guess it’s always something.

My point in telling this story is to highlight the importance role listening habits have on your sound. To me, listening is where you put all of your ducks in a row, while playing is the process by which you march them in either direction. More simply put: Listening is the gathering of information (the conceptual), while playing is the process by which you direct that information (the execution).

One of Charlie Parker’s most famous quotes was that, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” Well, I look at it this way: If it doesn’t go into your ears, it won’t come out of your horn.”

People often wonder how I’m able to play in the altissimo. And there are two main reasons: One, my emphasis on the development of my oral cavity control; and two, the things that I listen to. Sidney Bechet will take you but so far. Sidney will teach you how to swing and how to play the blues. But he won’t teach you how to play Cs above high F.  For that I listen to bansuri flute players, shakuhachi flute players, North African double reed instruments, you name it—anything or anyone thing that will give me a sonic reference, and consequently, the desired outcome. As I said, “If it doesn’t go into your ears, it won’t come out of your horn.”

So the next time, you are unhappy with your sound, and you’re thinking of changing your set-up, you might want to first change what’s inside of your iTunes playlist.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Soprano Saxophonist Jasmine Lovell-Smith: The Flying Kiwi

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. 

I first met Jasmine in 2010, back when I was teaching at one of the summer intensives presented by the School for Improvisational Music (SIM). She was in one of my ensembles. I could tell even them, that she was an artist traveling a different path with aesthetic that was left of center. 

So it was no surprise when I started reading wonderful things about her 2012 CD, Fortune Songs (with her band Towering Poppies) a couple of years later. In his plauditory review, jazz writer Dan McClenaghan (All About Jazz) wrote, “It is a superb debut by an artist and a band that does much more than run with the pack.” 

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 Johnson.

Are 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.

What 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 with it. 

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 comparatively unexplored.

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 creative writing.

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 in NY.

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 better.

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 this point.

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 ensemble.

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.

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!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Judgment Day: Will You Be Ready?

I often tell my students that contrary to their popular belief, they're not always going to be young and cute--metaphorically speaking. And that the older they get, the more harsh and less forgiving people we become of their playing. A baby gets away with everything, an adult gets away with nothing--especially when they're playing an instrument.

Knowing this is important because it lets us know the level of urgency with which we need to improve our weaknesses and to take our playing to the next level of musicianship. As I said earlier, the older we are, the more harshly one is judged.

Throughout this piece we will examine ones development over the four years it takes to get a bachelor's degree. The different levels of criticism will be labeled as categories 1 - 4.

To begin,  let's say that someone hears you play as a freshman. And we will assume that you're 18 years old, straight out of high school--or as we used to say on the Eastern shore of Maryland, "straight off the cucumber truck." An average player at this age usually has a certain amount of things together--or else they probably wouldn't have been accepted into the music program, they then to know a few tunes with have a basic working knowledge of scales and chords, and they typically have adequate technical facility, which enables them to modestly get around their instrument. 

Now that we have a starting point, a tangible point of reference, I will now discuss the four categories of judgment an average student might be subjected to during the four years it might take them to get an undergraduate music degree.

Category 1: Most people when hearing you at this stage will be somewhat forgiving of most, if not all of your shortcomings. Mainly because they're projecting that most of your weaknesses will be corrected or improved upon in the upcoming years. So the evaluation they're most likely to give you is "You've Got Potential" or "You're Going to be Alright."

Category 2: Now's let's look at the following year and you're still grappling with the same issues you were struggling with as a freshman, they're going to judge you at level 2, which is "You Need to Work Harder." So as you can see , this level of judgment is slightly harsher than category 1.

Category 3: Let's say that they hear your in year three and you've made a few improvements, but not enough to leave the impression that you've been working really hard. Now you have moved to category three: "You Really Need to get Your Sh#t Together!" This is a dangerous category because now they're starting to lose confidence in you and question whether you have the drive and maybe even the talent to get your self together musically. And this is a dangerous place to be in, because teachers will be less inclined to make that extra effort for you: recommending you for gigs, turning you on to recordings, sharing special anecdotes with you. You'll be reduced to the category of "Just Another Student."

Category 4: Now here's the fourth and most dangerous category. This is when you've made very little effort and consequently, little improvement from day 1. You're skating on the changes, or as we used to say, pulling a Tonya Harding; you sound more like an OK freshman than a soon-to-be newcomer to the coveted jazz scene. You have now entered that danger zone known as the "He (or She) Ain't Serious" zone. This is when you have gone from an asset to the music department to being a potential burden to it. Every time someone mentions your name, all that your professors can do is roll their eyes or shake their heads.    

I've seen many with potential wind up in this category, with me being the one rolling my eyes and shaking my head. It's disappointing to see it happen, but it does happen. If you don't want to end up here, the antidote is simple: practice, work hard and work long. Keep in mind that to get to the level where you sounded like a college freshman with potential took close to 8 years. However, to play at the level where you sound like a young professional with potential, you have to work twice as hard. To borrow from Martin Luther King, everything you do as a college student needs to be dealt with the  "fierce urgency of now'."

To give you an idea of how important this time is: fifty percent of my musical vocabulary was learned in college. Of course, I spent the next 30 years fine-tuning it. But the initial gathering of information stage happened between the ages of 17 - 22. And certainly sixty percent of the tunes I know were learned during this period. It's probably safe to say I knew more tunes back then. And probably seventy-five percent of my practice regimen was established during this time. Not only did I learn what and how to practice, this where I put in the time. I'm not saying that during this period I put in my 10,000 hours, but certainly over 5,000 of them.

Now, I could go on and on citing examples of the amount of things accomplished during this period. But the fact of the matter is this: Time passes by very quickly. Before you know it, you're wearing your cap and gown, marching to the beat of "Pomp and Circumstance," being handed a rolled up fancy piece of paper, which, if you can't play, won't guarantee you anything but a huge loan to pay back over the next 20 years.

So my advice is to stop poking your chest out and spouting that you're only 18 years old, as though that's an accomplishment. When you get to be 100 years old, then you can pop open that bottle of Champaign. Otherwise, the only thing you should be popping open is the door to the practice room.  Time is ticking. Tick, tock, tick tock...  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Downbeat Editor's Pick

Sam Newsome, The Straight Horn Of Africa (Some New Music)

Soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome has been on a path to liberation for years, most notably with his solo albums Blue Soliloquy (2010) and The Art Of The Soprano, Vol. 1 (2012). Now, with The Straight Horn Of Africa: A Path To Liberation, Newsome has truly freed himself, and his instrument, from traditional roles and expectations. 

Newsome has not only discovered a continuum that exists between Western harmony, Eastern music and the avant-garde; he has also unlocked the straight horn’s potential for extended techniques in a manner that brings to mind the groundbreaking work of virtuoso soprano sax visionaries such as the great Steve Lacy (1934–2004). Newsome’s music evokes ancient peoples and places, revealing the African origins of jazz and popular music—a connection often overshadowed by those genres’ deep-seated reliance on Western harmony. 

He pulls out all of the stops on the soprano, employing multiphonics, microtonality, slap-tonguing, circular breathing, vocalizations, talking drum-like key thumps and physical movement to create his melodies, rhythms and harmonies. Some tracks are layered via studio multitracking, with interlocking grooves and cyclical ostinatos pushing the simple themes along. Others are solo explorations that increase in complexity over the course of the album, ultimately yielding otherworldly sounding results. The sounds that Newsome seeks, and ultimately finds, are ones that date back to periods long before jazz existed but that informed its origins and consequent development. You won’t hear any direct references to straightahead repertoire here: This is naked soprano sax devoid of modern concepts—a pure voice achieved by an absolute master of the instrument.

 It’s extremely difficult to produce such palatable and emotionally stirring art by pushing an instrument so far beyond its traditional limits, but Newsome has refined his unconventional techniques to the point of creating a modern masterpiece. The Straight Horn Of Africa (which Newsome has subtitled The Art Of The Soprano, Vol. 2) will entrance you. Be prepared to shed any preconceived notions of the soprano saxophone and to let Newsome insightfully upend your understanding of how all the music styles of the world are interrelated. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Who Needs It: Steve Lacy and Branford Marsalis

In this blog piece, I’ve created two listening guides as a means to do a comparative analysis of these two performances of the Steve Lacy composition, “Who Needs It” performed by Steve Lacy, himself, on his classic CD, Sands;  and Branford Marsalis, on his CD, In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral.

These performances have two things in common. One, they were both recorded on the soprano, and two, they both were performed solo (unaccompanied).

Steve Lacy, as most fans of his music already know, recorded a voluminous amount of solo saxophone music. Coleman Hawkins may have popularized it, but Lacy certainly turned it into an art form.

In My Solitude: Live at Grace Cathedral is Branford Marsalis’ first full-length solo saxophone CD. And I say, “full-length” because Branford is no stranger to playing solo. In fact, there was a time he would play Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas” as an encore. No easy feat, I might add. But he did pull it off quite effectively.

When you listen to the way that both Lacy and Marsals interpret this piece, it’s pretty obvious that their styles vastly differ. Lacy is a minimalist and is economical to a fault; while Marsalis expertly walks that fine line between flash and taste. More simply put: Lacy’s approach is more sound centered, whereas Marsalis’ is more idea-centered.

“Who Needs It” as a composition is pretty minimal, as is the case with most of Lacy’s tunes. The form is A, A, A, B.  And the A section is 10 bars in length and in the key of Gb major and the B section is 12 bars in length and is in the key of G major. Simply put, it's the same theme played in two different keys. Similar modal jazz tunes written using this approach are Miles Davis' "So What," and John Coltrane's "Impressions." The difference, of course, is that Lacy's tune is in a major tonality, while the two aforementioned are in a minor key.  (Please see lead sheet below)


Steve Lacy – Who Needs It
0:00 – Lacy plays the main theme in the key of Gb major.
0:23 – He plays the theme again with little variation.
0:45 – Staying true to his very disciplined minimalist approach, Lacy plays the theme a third time with little variation.
1:07 – He then plays the B section, which is the theme in the key of G.
1:29 – Lacy improvises in Key of G.
2:09 – He then returns to the main theme, the A section, in the key Gb major, modulation down a half step.
2:30 – Lacy plays the last two bars of the theme, three times as a type of coda.


Branford Marsalis – Who Needs It
0:10 – Theme 1: (After the applause ) Marsalis plays the theme somewhat fragmented at a mezzo forte volume.
0:33 – Theme 2 – When playing the main the 2nd time, Marsalis begins at almost a whisper as a way of enticing the listener, while at the same time, playing the melody even more fragmented with brief moments of silence that makes the theme feel more suspenseful
as a way to keep the listener from settling into an aural comfort zone.
0:56 – Theme 3 – Marsalis begins the theme this time around at much louder volume. And he plays it less fragmented.
1:13 -  Theme 4 -  Unlike Lacy, Marsalis continues in the key Gb. He begins by referencing the theme, which organically morphs into an improvised solo.
1:30 – At the end of this theme variation/improvised solo, Marsalis loosely plays the last two bars of the theme as the 1st melodic cadence, marking the end of the sections.
1:34 –  At this point, Marsalis has totally broken away from the original theme and has begun laying his melodic groundwork in the key of Gb major, with a very active improvisation.
1:51 – Marsalis, again references that last two bars as for the 2nd melodic cadence that sets the stage for a more elaborate solo.
2:14 – Marsalis, loosely references the last two measures for the 3rd melodic cadence, the sets the stage for a more chromatic improvisaton.
2:26 – Marsalis, abruptly changes the tempo, to single the coming of the last theme
2:49 – Marsalis, loosely references the last two measures for the 4th melodic cadence, which sets the stage for him to play the set up theme in the key of G major by loosely referencing it. He proceeds with an improvised solo in the same key.
3:21 – Marsalis plays the 5th melodic cadence, to set up the performance of the last theme
3:25 – Plays the last theme in the key of G major, playing the last two bars three times as a coda.

To hear both of these interpretations in the context of the entire CD, please visit:
Steve Lacy, SANDS

You won’t be disappointed!

REVISION: After I posted this originally, soprano saxophonist Stefano Scippa informed me that he transcribed "Who Needs It" sometime ago, and was generous enough to let me post it. FYI, this is a Bb part, in the key of the soprano. Thanks, Stefano!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

An Interview with Soprano Saxophonist Stefano Scippa

The following interview with Italian soprano saxophonist Stefano Scippa was conducted several months ago. During this very telling conversation he enlightens us with insights learned from private lessons with Steve Lacy,  playing jazz in Bologna, and of course, the fascinating story behind his compelling solo saxophone CD, Immaculate Breakfast.

From his liner notes for his solo saxophone recording Immaculate Breakfast

In recent times after many years of intense activity, I felt the need to retire from music for a while, having lost interest due to the general lack of ideas and creativity on the scene. Not being able to find any pleasure in the practice of music, I considered the eventuality to quit altogether. So, with the exception of few isolated appearances, I decided to limit my playing to single weekly sessions just to keep physical contact with the saxophone. All this took place in a very special space: the chapel of the former mental institution Roncati in Bologna. There, nestled in a sort of retreat, the ancient hall halo became an instrument itself, in the form of reverberating waves produced by the same horn that had lost any appeal to me. The rise of vibrant, unearthly sound returned to me the original meaning of music I experienced many years ago. This time committed to such a lonely search showed me a direction that brought my style to maturity and a certain formal completion and these recordings are the outcome of two years hard work.

SN: Before we address what you wrote in your liner notes, I’d like to catch my readers up to speed on who you are what you’ve been up to these last several years. So when did you decide to make the soprano saxophone your main instrument?

SS: I started playing the clarinet when I was about twenty and attended the faculty of psychology. I was self-taught and only later on I enrolled and graduated at the conservatory, but then I was already a formed musician. I've always played music along with my profession as psychologist, with dedication and commitment. In addition, this passion has converged in further activities as art and music therapist

I played in many projects and combos: mostly acoustic and small sized, with the exception of a couple big bands. The projects range from mainstream jazz to traditional inspired ensembles, from free improvisation to early sacred music, not to mention some classical music. Another part of my output is into film music, television and contemporary theater. The element that remains constant in all these different types is a component of improvisation.

The soprano sax impressed me at first for its tense and modern sound. I thought it was representative of our time. Its liquid quality makes one think of molten metal. The horn design itself has an appeal: the intricacy and the sparkles, the mysterious keywork. So by the mid 90's I decided to add it to the clarinet, which I was playing thinking of a tenor sax. At some point I began to perceive the clarinet sound as limited and outdated, so I gradually switched to soprano until the transition was definitive.

Ultimately I did the same route of Sidney Bechet. Today, I think of the soprano like a trumpet and that's funny because I always played one instrument thinking of another.  But I think it’s necessary. If you play the same instrument for so long you need to invent something to get the rid of boredom!

SN: Were there any players that influenced your decision to play the soprano? Or were you solely influenced by your own connection to the instrument?

SS: In my case it was an individual choice, determined by the tendency to seek perfection in one single discipline. The instrument just happened to be the means to this vocation. Before that, I've been involved in extreme sports like BMX, rock climbing and scuba diving. All my life I've been deeply involved in some particular activity that tests my limits. And then when I touched it or felt the need for a change, I moved away to something new, another adventure

Regarding the soprano, there were also external influences. I came in contact with the horn when I saw some experienced colleagues in their concerts: the soprano had such an incisive sound, at the same time was close to the human voice. The speed of execution and the chromatic phrasing were among other elements that struck me. But it was when I heard Coltrane on My Favorite Things that I experienced a real epiphany! That was the decisive moment in which I resolved to take on soprano. I must have heard that song a thousand times?

Then I discovered the music of Lacy. He came often to Italy so it was easy to see and hear him play. I realized Trane made wonderful use of soprano, but Lacy’s uses of the soprano were infinite! I think Lacy exploited the fact of being limited by the instrument to liberate his imagination. But it was only when I had the opportunity to study with him that I really understood the logic behind his language. One day he played in front of me an unaccompanied chorus of Let's Call This to show how you can solo on it. In that moment, I realized his concept and all that I had heard before up to that day! It's amazing how decisive a single encounter can be

Lacy was also obsessed by sound. But on that subject I wasn't unprepared, since my first teacher, Oreste Sabadin, had instilled in me the same care for the sound. And he's definitely my first and fundamental reference point. Thank you, Oreste!

SN: You said that Lacy visited Italy a lot and you had numerous opportunities to hear him play. Was there any particular concert that stood out? Also, did you get a chance to sit down with him and talk about music and the soprano?

SS: I heard Steve live for the first time in 1994, in Padua, where he was studying. The trio with Irene Aebi and Frederic Rzewki on piano, presented Packet, a program of songs built around the poems of Judith Malina. A that time I had heard only Lacy's classics like Soprano Sax and Evidence. I wasn't not yet mature enough for that kind of music, but some fragments impression. But some years later I happened to get Packet CD and really enjoyed the music. Both lyrics and music are beautiful, the contribution of Rzewsi helps to project jazz language into a chamber music setting without forcing. I consider Packet Irene Aebi's best work, since her vocal qualities find their natural place. To this day it remains one of my favorite Steve's albums. The saxophone opening projected into the piano chassis has such a profound and evocative power that breaks the acoustic limits of the instrument.

Later in '98 I came to know that Steve was coming to Bologna for a masterclass. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet him, so I couldn't miss the chance. Steve nice and english demaneored, he really made me felt at ease. In the class many exercises consisted in the collective delivering of themes or group improvisations. There must have been at least a dozen saxophonists, and more than a half were soprano players. I placed a small analog tape recorder next to me, but when I went home and I listened back to the tapes I realized the sound was saturated and distorted. It was almost impossible to tell a single instrument out of the crowd, with one exception: Steve's sound was always there, distinct and clear, with the same features that you can listen to all his records! It was the biggest lesson that I received on sound, and without a word! I realized that Steve had probably found a way to take advantage of some particular frequencies different than those of all the others, and that these allowed him to emerge. Its uniqueness was thus revealed. The following day Steve explained to me and Gianni Mimmo how to deliver harmonics. I remember the three of us having troubles to play the fourth harmonic out of the middle C sharp. What a joy when I was the first to succeed. Steve congratulated me and he signed a nice dedication on a photo: "Good luck with the horn" Horray! 

SN: Is there much of a jazz scene in Bologna? There seems to be a lot of wonderful jazz musicians coming out of Italy.

SS: The city of Bologna and Italy in general, have always been a major landing point for the world of jazz, and the best musicians are regularly invited. By doing so, Italy itself has produced first class musicians. Today, however, the prevailing logic is that of small groups who care only for their interests rather than being supportive one to each others. In Bologna,  only a few venues survive and it's very difficult to play. A few festivals are accessible only to the big names.

The same is true for the theaters and the media that are controlled by institutions with strong political connotations. The result is a general lack of creativity and stagnation. The remaining chance for the independents is to take the burden of organization the financial risk. Personally, I’ve produced many events, like the Eaunaturelle Festival. Even doing so the institutions run by politicians tend to ignore the private to stop him in the long run.

Being that Italy the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is necessary that artists collectively exceed their personal limits and work together to overcome this  system. In these days I see a lot of musicians, even professionals, who are returning to play in the street to make ends meet. Who knows? Maybe this will do good to them and their music!

SN: Can you talk a bit more about the Eaunaturelle Festival?

SS: I decided to organize a festival of avant-garde music ( regardless of genres ) in 2006 and 2007, with many spinoffs during the year. It's hard to be part of small circles of musicians so I decided to do a festival of my own. Back from a trip from Berlin I had so much energy I felt confident enough I could do whatever I wanted for at least two years, and so it was. The festival was an independent success, I invited several guests from abroad and let them play with local artists. On that occasion I invited Joe Giardullo with whom I also made an soprano duet. My goal was to create a bridge between musicians and hopefully let them understand that joining they could be stronger and realize their projects. Unfortunately I failed this goal: at the end of the festival everyone returned home and resumed their individualistic attitude, with a few exceptions. I realized that most of the musicians have this kind of mentality and I could not do nothing except become a full-time organizer and fund them. Anyway, I became aware that I was able to create and manage a festival in all its aspects, from the programming of websites to fund raising and logistic. Everything went smoothly and there were no major issues. I do not exclude to repeat similar experiences in the future.

SN: Can elaborate on what you mean when you said that politicians in Italy run cultural institutions?

SS: I remained vague on this point not assume a polemical tone. But since you ask me I will explain. In Italy, if you have the chance to finance and organize your own events you can go forward on your own and overcome many bureaucratic obstacles. If you succeed then you eventually present your works to institutions but probably be ignored. Cultural institutions are controlled by politicians and prefer to finance associations led by militants of political parties. In this way public funding, which should be donated to the citizens, they become a mean of exchange to get votes. In this system the independents do not have space and oxygen, they can rely just on themselves and in long period they loose stamina. For example: Although the Eaunaturelle festival was an international event articulated in three cities the some press ignored it because I had no political support. Currently in Italy if a citizen writes a letter to a councilor to present a project in many cases does not even get a response. The distance between citizens and institutions is enormous. The only way to go is to be associated to politically deployed groups or be independent and self-finance, but you know well how difficult it is for musicians to assume that responsibility.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             SN: In your liner notes you said that you “felt a need to retire.” Was there any one particular thing that happened, or was it just that overall desire to play music had disappeared?

SS: It was a personal matter, but the story of an individual is also set in a general context which is what I just described above. The personal aspect relates to a declining interest in music and the instrument itself. For most of my life, music has been the inner spring of creative energies. As result of a period of professional activity, the wells were drained and the inspiration dried up. The sound of saxophone left me cold and the horn itself, turned upside down, looked like an Art-deco flower pot. I was saturated.

The thrill was gone and the music that was once a source of regeneration was now a hollow room. I decided to take a long break. A colleague advised me to have fun and do things other than music but encouraged me to keep a physical contact with the instrument, just by touching it from time to time. So I took his advice.

I'm not afraid to say I felt good without music, but I was aware it would have been a waste to throw it all away. I made up my mind to play once a week in the chapel of what once was the former mental asylum. I got into the habit of recording weekly sessions, and over time I realized they had a poetic beauty of their own. I found motivation and decided to set up a program to produce my first solo album.  

SN: Is it safe to say that Immaculate Breakfast was not just about making music, it was also a form of therapy.

SS: The place that gave birth to Immaculate Breakfast had a life of his own. The chapel reverberation mirrored the sounds back to me like an orchestra. In the hall that was once a church I could recollect my musical origins. I was surprised they were the same simple ideas I had in the theater days, so I just included in more advanced structures.  It was truly a form of self-therapy and regeneration.

At the end I was so happy that I decided to issue it with my label Contains Beauty. The last piece, the title track Immaculate Breakfast is the core of my musical concept packed in a few minutes. Incidentally this piece was the first to be recorded as a casual improvisation to test a new horn. In a way I consider it my poetic synthesis. 

Immaculate Breakfast is also an idea, a container functional for different type of performances, like theater. In a way it's a method to take care and feed yourself with the purest elements to survive artistically. When I work as an art or music therapist, I aim toward specific therapeutic goals. Similarly when I play music I need to do things I acknowledge as true.

In the era of technology Immaculate Breakfast is also a way to present the human being in front of an audience: naked, armed only with an old instrument and few ideas. Even if it may seem obvious we have to confront the real challenge - which is even more urgent in music. Is still the real human being to prefer over tech devices?  

SN: How did you become interested in improvised music and more importantly, playing solo?

SS: I became involved in improvised music for simple reasons. As everyone else I was deeply impressed by certain recordings, then I had friends who were playing jazz and that was certainly an influence. Improvisation is a softer and more funny approach than academic music. In improvised music the individual has room to express his personality. As you improve you soon realize that excellence is no less demanding than in classical music. The artist evolution is a process: you add some elements and take away others, then eventually come out with your unique mix. After all the search for the artistic self and your own voice is not very much different than life, where you have to find your place.

About solo performance I think that in the end we play solo for most part of our life. So the difference is when you decide to do it in public. When you're young a narcissistic component is a necessary part of the game, but later on when you are mature, it's substituted by need to pass your experience over to others as a form of altruism. It's the alchemical process of an individual who proceed form a starting point of egotism - the need to take - which is what permits the baby to survive - to a position of extroversion - the desire to give the best part of you . Which is a form of love.

Of course playing soprano solo it may also result out of the desire to confront yourself with a tradition ( Braxton, Lacy, etc. ). Sometimes it happens simply because you can't find the right partners to express a certain ideas. It's clear soprano today has a consistent solo tradition and it's common practice for dedicated soprano players do at least one solo recording. Sometimes I think that soprano could become the contemporary violin among winds.  

SS: I’m familiar with your CD, Immaculate Breakfast, obviously, but are there other solo recordings that you’ve done that you would recommend? 

SS: Immaculate Breakfast is my latest and only solo record so far. Before that I produced very different type of albums because I do not like repeat myself, but I play exclusively soprano saxophone on all those records. Albums focus on different genres.

One of my favorite is Rebirth Of Divine, a trio with Arabian oud and cello. The project is based on early sacred music and Gregorian chants. Early European music is a founding value to me, more or less like Afro-Americans would instinctively recognize the blues and spirituals. I also played some solo in that record, something I perfected later. 

Caffè Luce is the reduction of the traditional Italian band to a quartet including accordeon. The repertoire is made up of folk songs and original compositions. Another project issued under the title Eaunaturelle was the outcome of the collaboration with american cellist Tristan Honsinger - possibly the father of improvised cello. The music is organized into open structures and intuitive music strategies. An important stage of my life, Tristan taught me that there's no difference between life and music as the latter reflects the other. It was the most extreme form of musical freedom I experienced, but not easy to practice as someone would think.

As a sideman there are also some straightahead jazz recordings, some of which were reviewed positively in the States. That was a unexpected surprise!’’ 

SN: Are there links where we can buy Rebirth Of Divine and Caffè Luce?  

SS: My distributor is Cdbaby. My records are also available on iTunes.


SN: What do you find to be the most intriguing thing about playing solo? And feel free to expound on any challenges that you have faced, too.

SS: For me, today the challenge is to tell a story structured in different episodes – eg. the tunes - and set it into a musical frame as a theatrical metaphor. In order to have a certain authority you must already have developed your own unique sound. You can use that sonic blueprint to glue different genres of music. That's something you would not normally do in a quartet, where the repertoire is more singlely oriented. But playing solo allows you some kind of freedom.

By the way, you also need to add variety. You balance space and density, silence and sound, use different colors and dynamics, choose between several moods and tempos. You distribute all these elements to characterize each tune differently. In the end this is what do in any kind of successful performance. All you have is a certain amount of time and you fill it with selected actions. Some are repetitive and necessary, others are at your discretion. The same is true of life, you can expand reality drawing from your imagination, you can create something that didn't exist before. For the aspiring artist it's a form of intellectual honesty at least to try and not just keep repeating what others already did. That's what art is all about.

By the way, being an Italian, I believe the feature that most distinguishes us from others is melody, if you think, for instance, of the opera. So I choose selected melodies or melodic modules and use them in my performances as narrative anchors. 

SN: I’m going to change the topic slightly and talk shop. What kind of set-up do you play on?

SS: On soprano, slight changes are radical. Yet after many years it surprises me how my sound stay more or less the same with any kind setup. So, if I wish to alter the color it's mostly about nuances and inflections. That has a lot to do with the throat position.

I play a silver plated Selmer MK6. I always had a preference for silver horns over lacquered. I think silver have a deeper sound and better projection. With time the sound center grows bigger and darker, at least in my case. For the mouthpiece, after many years of rubber, I passed to wood because I feel it combines the qualities of ebonite and metal with a plus: it's a living material. I'm currently using a superb Sopranolanet 8* wood mouthpiece that Joe Giardullo custom made for me. I play different reeds depending on the music or the acoustic: Vandoren Traditional # 2 for classical, Alxander DC #3 and Marca Traditional #3 for other genres. I use a Winslow ligature for a wide dark sound and Oleg for a more brilliant one.

One of the features I like most is that breath sound, that ffft... that sometimes occurs shortly before the attack of the note. Most times is random, an unwanted noise. On the contrary I try to include it as much as possible in my playing. For this reason I was once banished - I must admit correctly - by the director of a contemporary music ensemble. Today I'd certainly make the director happy with the proper attack, but at that time it was more important to protect that forming ffft... rather than playing a classical setup and stay in the orchestra!

Anyway, I believe the reed is the most important element above all others. Sometimes we discard a mouthpiece or we say the acoustic is bad. But actually it's the reed that is unfitting. I made this discovery some years ago and I'll never forget it. I was tired of my piece and I casually happened to try a new brand of reed, the sound doubled and the effort halved! Isn't it for this that the instruments we play are named reeds? 

SN: Being someone who focuses on the soprano, do you find that you think or play differently than when you’re playing one of the other saxes?

SS: I do not come from other saxophones like many do, I consider myself a pure sopranoist. I seldom play other horns, it's something I do when I need a really different color, just like a painter would do. On the other hand you can treat your instrument as something different. That may prove necessary if you have an exclusive relationship with soprano, the tyrant par excellence.

I find that alto and tenor are generally easier to play and articulate but I have to adjust the air column, the air speed is slower and I can easily find myself playing overtones! I can make a correct comparison with the clarinet. The clarinet has a more imaginative phrasing for the upper register is a twelfth apart and you got more notes in the bottom. It's something I miss on soprano but the clarinet sound has a stronger connotation and I think on sop you have more choice to develop a personal sound. I will explain this.

When I was at the conservatory I made up to discuss my graduation playing solely soprano, a risky choice! As part of the discussion I wanted to give evidence that the limitations of the soprano were mistaken. I prepared to play all three the horn solos of Flamenco Sketches along with the original recording, in the same texture of the original instruments and trying to imitate their peculiar sound. With the exception of a few note of the alto and some scale runs of the tenor I accomplished that goal and I'm very proud of that! Someday I will put online the adapted charts for soprano geeks.

The horn gas certain restrictions but contains other elements you can master. Let's extend this idea to the musical transposition of life: you can easily imitate a flute, a crying baby or a lonely dog barking at the moon. But how would you represent a shooting star? That's has more to do with poetic skills and that is what I'm about!

SN: Are there any future recordings or projects that we can look forward to from Stefano Scippa?

SS: My the next record will be Domani. I'd like to play the material with different combos and sounds. There are original contemporary compositions, traditionals and some very ancient music dating back to the fourth century B.C.! I will also include some solo version of the baroque repertoire never recorded on soprano.

Soon I'll release Satori At Fall, a collections of jazz tunes played in a very free way by a piano less trio. When available the album can be downloaded for free at the website www.containsbeauty.com for promotional purpose. There are other things I'd like to do.

I dream of a small contemporary sacred music ensemble, an evolution of Rebirth Of Divine. While Immaculate Breakfast, has already became a theater play commissioned by the Winds & Bits festival in Rieti. A solo performance in which I play the role of the narrator and musician, inspired by the figure of the early bards, the wandering storytellers of Greece who sang their epics, accompained only by their instrument.  I consider theater the most complete and elder art form , since it includes all others artistic disciplines including music. Life itself is the most direct source of theatrical representation.

SN: Thanks for your time. And thanks for your insightful thoughts.

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