The soprano saxophone, unlike the clarinet or tenor sax, was never popular in jazz until Sidney Bechet, who was the first jazz musician to use it exclusively. A contemporary of Louis Armstrong and like Satchmo a New Orleans native, Bechet moved to Paris and became a famous exile. He recorded, among other things, the first instrumental cover of Gershwin’s classic “Summertime.”
The soprano sax was unpopular because, for one thing, it was difficult to play in tune–a real problem when you’re playing in a group. Bechet mastered it and made it sound beautiful. He also extended its range by taking it out of New Orleans and popularizing it in Paris. On this Rhythm Planet show, we hear a 1957 recording with the French-Algerian pianist Martial Solal.
Bechet’s soprano DNA was furthered exponentially by Steve Lacy, who started as a Dixieland musician only to discover and fall in love with the modern music of Thelonious Monk. Lacy, like Bechet, used the instrument exclusively and modernized its use. Lacy also moved to Europe in the 1960′s and was based in Paris. He perfected the sound of the unwieldy horn, practicing tirelessly and achieving total mastery of it. When Lacy would perform live on my “Morning Becomes Eclectic” and “Café LA” shows, he told the engineer to keep the room absolutely dry–no reverb, no wetness. He had a sound so big that he didn’t need any artificial sweetening. We hear two pieces by Lacy. First, a version of Monk’s “Bye-Ya,” and the second with vocalist Helen Merrill. Listen to how Lacy mirrors her voice at the end of this song, the spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
I was very happy to see Steve Lacy win the MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the “genius grant”) in 1992. It supported him financially for the remainder of his life; he died in 2004.
Lacy passed the torch onto another master, John Coltrane, who was inspired to take up the horn after hearing Lacy. Coltrane recorded “My Favorite Things” in 1961, two years after Rogers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music hit big on broadway. The album was a smash hit for Coltrane and Atlantic Records, whose jazz wing was run by Nesuhi Ertegun, brother of the more prominent and famous Ahmet. Coltrane used the 13 minute song to improvise with major and minor modes and scales based on his constant study of Russian emigré Nicolas Slominsky‘s masterful and comprehensive book Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.
The three artists on this show helped bring the soprano out of the shadows and into the jazz mainstream. Today most sax players include the soprano in their horn arsenals, and it is all because of Bechet, Lacy, and Coltrane doing this pioneering, brilliant work.
Rhythm Planet Playlist for 6/17/16:
- Sidney Bechet and Martial Solal / “I Only Have Eyes For You” / When A Soprano Meets A Piano / Inner City
- Steve Lacy Trio / “Bye-Ya” / Bye-Ya / Freelance Records
- Helen Merrill and Steve Lacy / “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” / Music Makers / Sunnyside/Owl
- John Coltrane / “My Favorite Things” / My Favorite Things / Atlantic