THE DOZENS: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SOPRANO SAX by Chris Kelsey


           Soprano Sax and Piano
     Fabric collage by Daniele Todaro


In 1919, while in London to perform with composer Will Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra, Sidney Bechet bought a soprano saxophone. The New Orleans-born-and-bred Bechet was already becoming famous as a clarinetist; such European classical music eminences as the conductor Ernst Ansermet and composer Igor Stravinsky praised him extravagantly. The young Bechet was as yet only on the cusp of greatness, however. His purchase of the soprano sax helped put him over the top.

Soon the soprano became Bechet’s primary horn—the instrument on which he made his most enduring and distinctive statements. Within four years, he’d play soprano on some of the best early jazz records, in the process establishing the small, straight brasswind as a legitimate jazz instrument … and himself as one of the nascent idiom’s two greatest soloists.

As it turned out, Bechet’s mastery of the soprano didn’t ensure it a dominant place in jazz. Far from it. While other members of the saxophone family—especially the tenor and alto—had influential adherents by the score, the small, rather nasal-sounding soprano receded into the mists. Some musicians played the horn in the classic New Orleans style (Bob Wilber comes to mind), but after Bechet, no other soprano saxophonist made a substantial impact on jazz for decades. Not until Steve Lacy—a Bechet disciple-turned-avant-gardist—came onto the scene in the late ‘50s would a soprano saxophonist begin to influence the development of jazz in the manner of the innovative alto and tenor saxophonists of the ‘30s and ‘40s.



    Wayne Shorter, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Initially, Lacy’s significance was felt indirectly. Although he recorded a few times in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, first as a Dixielander and later as a progressive, his music wasn’t widely influential until later. In the beginning, his major impact was felt in the person of a tenor saxophonist—John Coltrane—who had reputedly taken-up the smaller horn after being inspired by Lacy’s example.

Coltrane adopted the soprano at a crucial phase in his career, a point when he was leaving bebop behind and moving toward modal and free jazz. In the early ‘60s, he was the dominant figure in jazz. His use of the soprano inspired other like-minded saxophonists to adopt it, sometimes as their principal horn, more often as an adjunct to alto or tenor. The horn subsequently became a vehicle for some of jazz’s more experimentally-inclined musicians. Although it’s also widely played by pop jazz saxophonists, in terms of serious use, the soprano is now largely associated with post-bop, free jazz, and non-idiomatic free improvisation.

This installment of The Dozens looks at 12 steps in the development of the soprano saxophone in jazz—from the New Orleans-style music of Sidney Bechet to the technically astounding post-jazz abstractions of Evan Parker and beyond. It’s hardly all-inclusive selection. Many worthies are left out. (The author will now take a moment to chastise himself for not including Sam Rivers.) Their absences aren’t a reflection of their importance or lack thereof, but rather a case of journalistic prerogative. Charges of arbitrariness aside, there’s no arguing the extraordinary nature of the music that made the cut.


Sidney Bechet: Kansas City Man Blues

Track

Kansas City Man Blues

Artist

Sidney Bechet (soprano sax)

CD

Young Sidney Bechet (Timeless CBC1028)

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Musicians:

Sidney Bechet (soprano sax),

Thomas Morris (cornet), John Mayfield (trombone), Clarence Williams (piano), and Buddy Christian (banjo)

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Composed by Clarence Williams

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Recorded: New York, July 30, 1923

Albumcoveryoungsidneybechet-sidneybechet

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Taken from Bechet's first session with pianist Clarence Williams' Blue Five, "Kansas City Man Blues" is (with "Wild Cat Blues") one of his first two extant recordings. As if to prove that the irascible Bechet followed no man, his vibrato-laden soprano is front and center. Although the group is a New Orleans-style collective, in truth this is a soprano feature; the rest of the band takes the only sensible course and stays in the background. Everything that made Bechet special is on display: the sinuous phrasing, resolute rhythms, and that sound—like a blowtorch. It's little wonder that few of his contemporary jazz saxophonists took up the cudgel and adopted the soprano (Johnny Hodges was one of the few; he played soprano in his youth, even studying with Bechet, and played it occasionally even after switching to alto). Bechet's personality on the instrument is so strong, it must've seemed almost impossible to find an alternative way to play it. The man was a force of nature.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Steve Lacy: Work

Track

Work

Artist

Steve Lacy (soprano sax)

CD

Soprano Sax (Prestige P-7125)

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Musicians:

Steve Lacy (soprano sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Buell Neidlinger (bass), Dennis Charles (drums).

Composed by Thelonious Monk

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Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, November 1, 1957

Albumcoversopranosax-stevelacy

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

A mere three or four years before the recording of Soprano Sax, the teen-aged Steve Lacy had been a Bechet-enthralled Dixieland soprano saxophonist and clarinetist. A subsequent association with Cecil Taylor opened his eyes and ears, and by 1957 he'd ditched the clarinet and was playing soprano full-time in the most modern contexts. This take of "Work" was a precursor of Lacy's eventual preoccupation with Thelonious Monk, an interest that would soon lead to the formation of a group (with trombonist Roswell Rudd) that played only Monk tunes. Lacy is accompanied here by two cohorts from the Taylor band—bassist Buell Niedlinger and drummer Dennis Charles—and a ringer on piano: sideman-to-the-stars Wynton Kelly. The music swings hard, with the rhythm section laying down solid if conventional backing. Lacy is, of course, the wild card, his laconic take on bop harmony and phrasing unlike anything that had been played on the soprano. Only 23 when this was recorded, Lacy's most productive years as a great composer and improviser were ahead of him. As an example of the soprano sax emerging as a legitimate modern jazz vehicle, however, this is an important document.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


John Coltrane: Afro Blue

Track

Afro Blue

Artist

John Coltrane (soprano sax)

CD

Afro Blue Impressions (Pablo Live 2620-101)

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Musicians:

John Coltrane (soprano sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass), Elvin Jones (drums).

Composed by Mongo Santamaria

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Recorded: West Berlin, November 2, 1963

Albumcoverafroblueimpressions-johncoltrane

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The stories vary about how and why John Coltrane decided to begin playing the soprano. Most accounts give Steve Lacy at least some credit, which makes sense, in that when it came to the soprano in modern jazz, Lacy was the only game in town in the late '50s and early '60s. However, Coltrane didn’t mimic Lacy any more than Lacy mimicked his first inspiration, Sidney Bechet. Indeed, Coltrane didn't even mimic himself, but instead developed a soprano style distinct from his tenor style. Coltrane had first recorded on the soprano in June 1960, and his breakthrough performance on the instrument—"My Favorite Things"—came later that year, but he'd clearly reached a new level on the horn by the time this was made. The Afro Blue Impressions version of "Afro Blue" follows the more famous Live at Birdland version by about a month, and it's arguably as good if not better. At their best (which was pretty much every time they took the bandstand), Trane and his rhythm section were like a hurricane wrestling an earthquake. They generate that kind of power here. On soprano, Coltrane's chops were astounding, of course, but it’s the song-like nature of his playing—especially in the horn's upper register—that is particularly affecting. This is Coltrane at the height of his powers as a soprano saxophonist, and it reveals an amalgam of originality and spirit that's seldom been matched, let alone surpassed.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Roscoe Mitchell: Music for Trombone & B Flat Soprano

Track

Music For Trombone and B Flat Soprano

Artist

Roscoe Mitchell (soprano sax)

CD

Quartet (Sackville SKCD2-2009)

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Musicians:

Roscoe Mitchell (soprano sax), George Lewis (trombone).

Composed by George Lewis

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Recorded: October 4 or 5, 1975

Albumcoverroscoemitchell-quartet

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

The initial free jazz successes of the late '50s and early '60s were centered mostly in New York, where musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp and others lived and developed their new music. New York's monopoly on the avant-garde didn't last long, however. The experimental impulse spread to other jazz communities across the world. In Chicago in the mid '60s, a second major U.S. scene sprung up, as musicians like Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis (in the company of Muhal Richard Abrams, Phil Cohran, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, and others) founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. More so than the New Yorkers, members of the AACM combined elements of 20th-century European-derived art music with jazz, resulting in a unique and altogether innovative stripe of improvised music.

Roscoe Mitchell and George Lewis both turned out to be among the most adventurous of the Chicago crowd, their music blurring anything resembling a barrier separating jazz and experimental classical music. This track—a trombone/soprano sax duo—is representative of their intrepidness. A jazz sensibility suffuses the phrasing of both Lewis and Mitchell, yet the spare instrumentation, spiky melodic contours, and creative use of silence bespeak an admiration for contemporary classical compositional techniques. Mitchell is probably best known for his work with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, yet it's often quieter projects like this that show his subtle instrumental concept to its best advantage. While he obviously owes a debt to Coltrane, Mitchell's soprano work is nevertheless unique, and in some ways can be considered an advance on both Coltrane and Steve Lacy. His use of dissonant, widely-spaced intervals is almost Webern-esque. His concentration on the more acute aspects of tone production has parallels in the work of Lacy, yet Mitchell's approach is his and his alone. Lewis is as distinctive and attentive to detail.

This music is finely-wrought, yet deceptively strong—like a spiderweb spun from piano wire.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Wayne Shorter: Super Nova

Track

Super Nova

Artist

Wayne Shorter (soprano sax)

CD

Super Nova (Blue Note 84332)

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Musicians:

Wayne Shorter (soprano sax), Sonny Sharrock (guitar), John McLaughlin (guitar), Miroslav Vitous (bass), Chick Corea (keyboards), Jack DeJohnette (drums).

Composed by Wayne Shorter

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Recorded: New York, August 29 or September 2, 1969

Albumcoverwayneshorter-supernova

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

It's hard to remember a time when Wayne Shorter didn't play at least as much soprano sax as he did tenor, but he came to the smaller horn relatively late, at age 35: after playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; after recording most of his early Blue Note masterpieces; and after making his mark with the classic Miles Davis Quintet of the mid '60s. It wasn't until late 1968 that he began recording on soprano, first with Miles (on the In a Silent Way sessions), and later on this title track from his own 1969 Blue Note album.

Shorter might have found the soprano late, but he hit the ground running. Based on a slight, endlessly transmutable motiv, Shorter's lissome soprano solo seems to throw into relief the quickness he always exhibited on tenor. Everything seems sped up here—the tempo, the horn's sound, Shorter's remarkably precise manner of articulation (something that would become ever more pronounced over the years). Backed by a smoking rhythm section, "Super Nova" is a highly-chromatic music that eschews conventional bop or even modal harmonies, yet retains the explicit swing element. The soprano's small size allows it to be played at higher velocity, making it the ideal horn for Shorter and younger hyper-agile freebop players (Branford Marsalis and Joshua Redman being two of the best) who would fall under his spell over the next thirty-plus years. Few of those younger players would ever capture the same air of spontaneity, however, nor would they evince as much originality as Shorter, who would remain one of the dominant voices on the horn for decades to come.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Keith Jarrett (featuring Jan Garbarek): The Windup

Track

The Windup

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Belonging (ECM (G) 1050)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano), Jan Garbarek (soprano sax), Palle Danielsson (bass), Jon Christensen (drums).

Composed by Keith Jarrett

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Recorded: Oslo, Norway, April 24 or 25, 1974

Albumcoverbelonging-keithjarrett

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Beginning in the '70s, some of the most consistently interesting soprano saxophonists could be found in Europe. One of the first and best was Jan Garbarek. Initially inspired by the expressionist tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler, Garbarek recorded with composer/theorist George Russell in the mid-to-late '60s. By the mid '70s, Garbarek had evolved into a disciplined, post-bop melodist, recording a series of fine leftward-leaning albums under his own name for ECM. However, some of his best—-and jazziest—work came as a member of pianist Keith Jarrett's "European Quartet," with whom he recorded this track. "The Windup" is driven by Jarrett's gospel-ish piano vamp and drummer Jon Christensen's chattering snare, which lead into a cheerful odd-time melody played by Garbarek on curved soprano. Garbarek's sound is less like that of a straight soprano than it is the musette sometimes favored by saxophonist Dewey Redman. Nasal in character but full-bodied, it's one of the most distinctive soprano sax sounds in all of jazz. After Jarrett's solo, Garbarek enters unaccompanied. His solo is almost Ornette-ish in character. Singing and melodic, strongly rhythmic but harmonically unfettered, it's a joyful sound, not least because of its sheer individuality. Not many soprano saxophonists took the route suggested by Garbarek here, which not coincidentally adds to the music's appeal.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Zoot Sims: Moonlight in Vermont

Track

Moonlight in Vermont

Artist

Zoot Sims (soprano sax)

CD

Soprano Sax (Pablo 2310-770)

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Musicians:

Zoot Sims (soprano sax), Ray Bryant (piano), George Mraz (bass), Grady Tate (drums).

Composed by John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf

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Recorded: New York, January 8 or 9, 1976

Albumcoverzootsims-sopranosax

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Not many swing or bop saxophonists have put the soprano to good use—few if any during the '30s and '40s, when those styles were gestating. However, in the '60s and '70s a few veterans picked up the horn and made good music with it, among them Phil Woods, Jimmy Heath, Dexter Gordon, and Zoot Sims. The latter recorded an especially attractive album of soprano performances in 1973. Sims transported his suave, deftly swinging style from tenor to soprano, lock, stock, and barrel, with great success. On the ballad "Moonlight in Vermont," Sims highlights the horns sweeter qualities. His soprano sound is an extension of his tenor sound—slightly breathy, smooth and effortless, without a hint of the nasal quality that seems to naturally infect the playing of many more modern players. And oh how he swings! It's enough to make one regret that the horn didn't find wider acceptance back in the day. Who knows how the horn would've sounded in the hands of the great swing era saxophonists? Until someone uncovers some long-lost recordings of Lester Young playing the soprano, this is as close as we're likely to get.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Dave Liebman: Footprints

Track

Footprints

Artist

Dave Liebman (soprano sax)

CD

Pendulum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Mosaic Select MS-032 )

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Musicians:

Dave Liebman (soprano sax), Randy Brecker (trumpet), Al Foster (drums),

Richie Beirach (piano), and Frank Tusa (bass)

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Composed by Wayne Shorter

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Recorded: Village Vanguard, New York, February 1978

Albumcoverpendulum-daveliebman

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

A whole slew of saxophonists born in the '40s and '50s and coming of age in the '60s and '70s were inspired by John Coltrane, yet managed to develop singular voices of their own. Many of them—Steve Grossman, Bob Berg, Jerry Bergonzi, and Bennie Maupin, among them—were primarily tenor players who adopted soprano as a double. Many of them became quite accomplished soprano players, yet few immersed themselves so completely in the horn as Dave Liebman. Indeed, Liebman has played soprano exclusively for long stretches of his career. In the process, he's become one of the dominant voices on the instrument.

Soprano was still something of a double for Liebman when he recorded this Latin-ized version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" at the Village Vanguard in 1978, yet he had already achieved a rare mastery over the famously finicky instrument. The Coltrane touch is less a literal presence than a general air that surrounded Liebman's playing—particularly in terms of intensity, a quality exuded by Trane, yet not one on which he held a patent. Liebman's front line partner is trumpeter Randy Brecker, who by the time of this recording had achieved considerable renown as a fusion player, but who flaunts his straight-ahead chops to good advantage. The rhythm section—Liebman's longtime associates Richie Beirach on piano and Frank Tusa on bass, plus the eminent Al Foster on drums—is propulsive in the extreme, well-matched to Liebman's own fiery, aggressive presence. At a time when many of the most influential and creative soprano saxophonists were associated with free jazz and/or the avant-garde, Liebman was using the horn in a modal/post-bop context with great distinction.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Jane Ira Bloom: I Got Rhythm But No Melody

Track

I Got Rhythm But No Melody

Artist

Jane Ira Bloom (soprano sax)

CD

Mighty Lights (Enja 4044)

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Musicians:

Jane Ira Bloom (soprano sax), Charlie Haden (bass), Ed Blackwell (drums).

Composed by Jane Ira Bloom

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Recorded: New York City, November 17 or 18, 1982

Albumcovermightylights-janeirabloom

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

The talented and self-reliant Jane Ira Bloom emerged in the late '70s, producing and releasing albums on her own Outline label. Mighty Lights is her third album, and first for an outside label. She's joined on this track by an estimable rhythm section: former Ornette Coleman confreres Charlie Haden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums.

Given the presence of Haden and Blackwell, one might expect more of an Ornette-ish influence, but the up-tempo "I Got Rhythm But No Melody" has none of the down home qualities characteristic of a Coleman composition. It is, rather, a knotty, harmonically vague and altogether "out" tune, more like something Sam Rivers at his most hyperactive might've concocted. As an improviser, Bloom is busy and not especially lyrical. She sounds a bit callow in contrast with her veteran band mates (her time is not always sure, nor do her ideas always come to a reasonable conclusion), yet she's already exhibiting a pronounced streak of originality. She has a bit of Steve Lacy's dryness of tone and disinclination to play long strings of eighth notes. Rather, like Lacy, she breaks up her line, going in and out of time in a pleasantly unpredictable fashion.

At the time this was recorded in the early '80s, Bloom was establishing herself as a soprano specialist, then as now (and seemingly forever) a rara avis. Since then, she's grown both as an artist and in renown, becoming a perennial poll-winner and one of the most well-respected soprano saxophonists in jazz. This is a fine example of an exemplary artist just coming into her own.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Evan Parker: Breath and Heartbeat 3

Track

Breath and Heartbeat 3

Group

Parker.Guy.Lytton.Trio

CD

Breaths and Heartbeats

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Musicians:

Evan Parker (soprano sax),

Barry Guy (bass), and Paul Lytton (drums)

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Composed by Evan Parker, Barry Guy, and Paul Lytton

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Albumcoverbreathsandheartbeats-parkerguylyttontrio

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Evan Parker is probably the most influential out of a group of superb British soprano saxophonists (which also includes Lol Coxhill and John Butcher) working far to the left of what is normally thought of as jazz, in an area probably better defined as non-idiomatic free improvisation. Parker has arguably been the most influential of the lot. He has mastered the conventional aspects of playing the soprano sax; he can go from any point on the horn to any other point with the greatest of ease and velocity. More than that, however, he's developed a manner of playing that comes very close to simulating a sort of non-tonal counterpoint. That should be impossible on a single-line instrument, and of course he doesn't do exactly that, but his ability to articulate and finger at super-human speed coupled with a manner of squeezing tones from all registers seemingly at once results in a music of mind-boggling complexity.

Of course, a music so intellectually rigorous and uncompromising won't appeal to everybody. Parker's long-standing trio with bassist Barry Guy and drummer Paul Lytton takes what is a fairly conventional jazz format (horn, bass, drums) and creates a steadfastly abstract music that dares anyone to place a label on it. "Breath and Heartbeat 3" is one of a series of free improvisations wherein the three men operate on the very edge of imagination and comprehension. They put it over by dint of their audacity—they don't care what you think, they're going to do what they do—and by generating a palpable collective electricity. Like it or not, its very manifestation is a creative wonder.

This music sounds nothing like jazz, but what else can it be? As the saying goes, once you eliminate all other possibilities, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the answer.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Lol Coxhill: Darkly #20

Track

Darkly #20

Artist

Lol Coxhill (soprano sax) and Andrea Centazzo (percussion)

CD

Darkly Again (ICTUS 138)

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Musicians:

Lol Coxhill (soprano sax), Andrea Centazzo (percussion).

Composed by Lol Coxhill and Andrea Centazzo

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Recorded: Austria circa 1979/1983

Albumcoverdarklyagain-coxhillcentazzo

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Unlike Evan Parker, a fellow British subject and soprano saxist, Lol Coxhill integrates straight-ahead jazz and rhythm & blues elements into his style, even while maintaining an essential free jazz/improv outlook. In this duo with the drummer Andrea Centazzo, Coxhill is a blowzy extrovert; his style is loosely swinging and blues-inflected. Even though he seldom lands where you'd expect, there's an ever-present reference to a tonal center. Coxhill is the rare soprano experimentalist who seems comfortable with the syntax of both jazz and pop, and it can give his playing a warm, engaging quality. He and Centazzo embark on an energetic, freely-improvised course. Centazzo both colors and ignites with strong free-time rhythms; Coxhill spins long, blowzy lines that for all their earthy appeal are nevertheless profoundly sophisticated.

Calling Coxhill a populist might be stretching things, but this track demonstrates how, compared to other prominent free jazz soprano saxophonists (including Parker and Steve Lacy—with whom, incidentally, Coxhill recorded the soprano trio album Three Blokes in the late '90s), he has been occasionally inclined to adopt a more accessible approach.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


Joe Giardullo: Channeling

Track

Channeling

Artist

Joe Giardullo (soprano sax)

CD

Weather (Not Two MW 755-2)

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Musicians:

Joe Giardullo (soprano sax).

Composed by Joe Giardullo

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Recorded: Krakow, Poland, April 24, 2004

Albumcoverweather-joegiardullo

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Living in upstate New York is not conducive to accruing fame as a jazz musician (forget fortune), unless of course one makes his name in New York City or some other metropolis first. While the veteran soprano saxophonist Joe Giardullo occasionally sojourns into the city and plays gigs in Europe, he has developed out of the spotlight, for the most part.

Such relative obscurity hasn't prevented Giardullo from becoming one of the premiere artists on the small horn, however. "Channeling" is the first track from Weather, a solo album recorded live in concert. The track reveals an uncompromising musician who's taken a course parallel to such players as Evan Parker and Lol Coxhill. Like Parker, he's adept at eking-out a chirpy upper register and weaving long, scrawling lines that assiduously avoid tonality or even precise pitch. He emphasizes the latter aspect by slowing things down and manipulating his tone in tiny increments, rather like the Boston woodwind virtuoso Joe Maneri. Giardullo also varies the character of his sound; a close ear for contrasting timbres is one of his finest qualities.

If the march of the soprano sax in jazz has been toward ever greater abstraction, Giardullo—as an heir to and synthesizer of the innovations of artists like Coxhill, Parker, and Steve Lacy—is presently among the most forward elements.

Reviewer: Chris Kelsey


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