My Journey With The Soprano Saxophone


Maiden Voyage

The truth is that I came upon the soprano saxophone by chance. After exclusively playing the tenor from age twelve, I began my relationship with the soprano when landing my first full time job as a musician in 1970 with one of the early pioneering fusion bands, Ten Wheel Drive. This was an important step in my life, not only because of the soprano (although in the final analysis that was the most enduring aspect of that gig), but due to the fact that this band placed all the musicians on salary meaning this was a full time job. Up to that time, I played mostly on weekends and at summer resorts throughout high school and college enabling me to earn some extra cash money. But by the time I graduated from New York University in 1968 with a degree in American history, I had already decided that I was going to give music a chance but only on my terms. In other words, no more dance music at weddings or the like, only music where there was improvising in a jazz concept. Early fusion was an attempt to combine a jazz feeling and improvisation with rock ‘n’ roll rhythms so that style passed my so-called integrity test, at least at that time. In Ten Wheel Drive I was the only reed player along with several brass, a standard rock rhythm section and a lead singer named Genya Ravan who was very much in the Janis Joplin mode. The music combined aspects of Broadway show tunes, r & b and a little jazz influence. In any case, I was required to play tenor and baritone saxophone, flute and soprano. So upon completing the audition and being hired, I immediately went to 48th Street in Manhattan where all the music stores are located and bought my first Selmer soprano saxophone with a hard rubber mouthpiece.

It wasn’t as if I hadn’t heard a soprano. Having seen John Coltrane’s group dozens of times in New York from 1961 until he died in 1967 I had definitely been inspired by the intense and individual way he played the horn. But for the most part, it was the tenor saxophone which was my primary love and I considered myself a tenor player first and foremost. As for the soprano, I just never thought of playing it and when the Ten Wheel Drive gig occurred, I still thought of myself as a tenor player who doubled on soprano along with the other reeds I played at the time.

 The Soprano Milieu in 1970

At present it is difficult for any jazz fan to envision a world with little soprano saxophone front and center. But in 1969, there were only two major living exponents of the soprano since Coltrane had passed in two years earlier. Of course, you could go back a few decades to Sidney Bechet, but I didn’t research him until much later. Any discussion of the modern soprano saxophone has to begin with Steve Lacy, who from 1967 lived in France for decades. Although he began on the clarinet, he became enamored of Bechet and another player on the soprano, Bob Wilber. By the early 1960s, Steve was immersed in the soprano playing some very notable music focusing on Thelonius Monk tunes for awhile, then collaborating with the early avant garde players like Roswell Rudd and Cecil Taylor. Lacy played only soprano and for that fact as well as his unique style, Steve had already carved a niche out for himself by the mid 60s.

But I wasn’t that familiar with Lacy’s music and his influence upon me was negligible. As mentioned, I saw Coltrane a lot from 1961 until his death and marveled at how differently he played the soprano than the tenor, using trills and tremolos as well as long legato runs with a tone reminiscent of the double reed family (oboe and english horn). There was as well a marked influence from the ethnic family of instruments, for example the Indian shenai. Like so many other young musicians, I was captivated by Coltrane and it was his direct influence that most inspired me to want to seriously play jazz. But that is another story.

By the late 60s with Trane gone, it was left to Wayne Shorter to pick up the soprano and be the next important voice on it. He did this while still playing with Miles Davis and in particular used the soprano when Davis began playing fusion music as recorded on “In A Silent Way” and the very influential “Bitches Brew”. Wayne didn’t sound like Coltrane at all. In fact, he played the soprano in a rather simple and melodic fashion with occasional bursts of fast runs. Needless to say, Shorter went on to make even more history with the group Weather Report and later his own music. But again I was not directly influenced by Wayne’s soprano playing, more so his tenor. So when I began to play the soprano in 1970 I had no direct link to anyone playing it nor did I consider it a serious instrument for myself. Little did I know what the future would hold for me and the “fish horn.” (That is a slang expression which refers to the soprano in a perjorative way).

 The Soprano with Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and Lookout Farm

When I became a member of the Elvin Jones Group in 1971 it really marked the beginning of my professional life as a jazz artist. This was a group that worked a lot, mostly in clubs playing several sets a night. So I was getting the chance of a lifetime to play all the time and with one of the most influential musicians in jazz (as well as in my life) from his nearly six years as Coltrane’s drummer. During this period I was living in a loft on West 19th Street in Manhattan occupying the same building with Chick Corea and Dave Holland. There was non-stop music going on there with many musicians who are now famous cutting their teeth in long playing sessions. It was a center of sorts with the door always open to anyone who wanted to play at any hour. One of my closest associates during this period was saxophonist Steve Grossman. We were both heavily influenced by Trane, and in particular his final free jazz period. The two of us would play constantly on both soprano and tenor. When I got the gig with Elvin, within a few months Steve was on the band. Along with bassist Gene Perla we were together for nearly two years. Since Steve and I were so close it was a very agreeable situation in which he just naturally wanted to play more tenor. So a good deal of the material featured me on soprano as well as flute. This was the beginning of my playing a lot of soprano and I started to feel comfortable on it.

In the beginning of 1973 I joined Miles Davis’ Group, which was the pinnacle of all gigs as a sideman. I was in the line of Coltrane, Mobley, Shorter and others. It was a special time for me which I have discussed this in length in a book called Miles Davis and David Liebman:Jazz Connections (Mellin Press). In relation to the soprano, it once again naturally became the primary instrument for me during the sixteen months I was with Miles. This was not because he requested it, but due to the nature of the music in that group. It was very loud, electric, funk oriented and laden with two (and for awhile three) guitars as well as percussion, drums and electric bass. Although I used a pickup on my horns, hearing myself was a challenge and because of its higher range the soprano was more able to cut through the dense mass of sound. With Miles I began to discern the beginnings of an individual voice on the soprano saxophone.

In 1974 I ventured out on my own with my first group Lookout Farm. With two recordings on ECM (Lookout Farm and Drum Ode), the beginning of my solo career was launched and now the responsibility of directing music was on my shoulders. In the musical sense Lookout Farm represented the eclectic nature of my tastes. We played straight ahead jazz, re-arranged standards as well as Indian influenced music (tabla player Badal Roy was in the group for awhile) and some fusion. By now the choice from my complete arsenal of tenor, soprano and flute (even alto flute for some time) was according to the particular tune I would play. For the burning jazz tunes it would be tenor; for the funk and vamp type tunes the soprano; and for the ethnic influenced compositions I would use the flutes. This basic recipe went on through the period of Lookout Farm into a short lived fusion band that I had based in California (the Pee Wee Ellis-David Liebman Band) and further into the Dave Liebman Quintet which featured the young and unknown John Scofield and Kenny Kirkland (1978-81). It was a successful musical formula which persisted through all these bands as a way of handling all the various different material I chose to play. But by the late 1970s I was beginning to question the neatness and rigidity of this formula and a big change was on the horizon.

 Giving Up the Power Horn

There comes a point in an artist’s life that he or she must be objective and identify   the strongest aspects of their work. After the first flush of talent and success with all the dreams and desires accompanying that stage, there naturally comes a point in  development where concentration of energy becomes necessary and one can see that with increased focus greater gains may be realized. When I thought about my little neat instrumental recipe, I realized that in a given set of an hour when I played all three instruments it resulted in very few actual moments spent on each horn. It had always been clear to me that one of the most important aspects for attaining a high level was achieved by pure and simple instrumental virtuosity. The only way that is accomplished is by the sheer amount of man hours spent with the horn in your mouth. And that means ONE horn, because though the tenor and soprano belong to the same family of instruments, they are different in many ways. It was clear that the only way for me to advance further was to concentrate energy on one or the other horn. The soprano clearly prevailed for two reasons.

Even in the early days with Elvin and Miles it was apparent to me that I had a more individual approach on the soprano. Maybe it was because I hadn’t ever attempted to emulate anyone on that horn as opposed to the tenor, or that the soprano was an octave higher than the tenor which in my case made me hear differently. I even have considered some mystical reasons; that in a past life I had been part of a tribe in the desert playing some sort of straight horn (Jewish-Bedouin roots?). After all, my very first horn pre-dating the tenor was the clarinet. From a physical standpoint, the soprano seemed to fit my physique more suitably since I have a medium frame. All these feelings pointed me towards choosing the soprano. However, the mere idea of not playing the tenor was daunting. I had begun on the big horn and through Coltrane and Rollins for the most part, it was how I learned to play. What would I do without it? How would I get the power and intensity I valued so much in my music without the tenor? Also from a practical standpoint, would my reputation suffer, particularly insisting on doing record dates without the tenor?

The second argument swaying me towards the soprano had to do with my own sense of self identity. The tenor legacy was over fifty years old at this time beginning with Coleman Hawkins. There was much water under the bridge and in any case I couldn’t imagine anyone topping Coltrane in my opinion. Grossman and I had been among the first of the post-Coltrane generation saxophonists to absorb some of his concepts. With Elvin’s group we had established a way of playing that was already being emulated by others in the late 70s. I couldn’t see myself looking for the end of a rainbow forever. How could I ever leave my mark on the tenor? It seemed impossible. The soprano was basically untouched outside of Lacy, Trane and Shorter. There was room at the top and in 1980 I made the move.

 The Soprano Saxophone Itself

From the technical standpoint what characteristics separate the soprano from the other saxophones? It should be obvious to even the casual listener when one plays the horn ineptly, more so than on the other saxes. The soprano is not an easy instrument to use as a “double”, meaning only on a few occasions, like the clarinet or flute for example. It demands too much control and practice to be relegated to a subordinate position and still sound passable.

The main technical problems with the soprano concern tone production and intonation which are primarily caused by its small bore size. The body of the soprano is conical like the other saxophones except at the very onset of the flaring out it is exceedingly narrow. This means that an immense volume of air is being pushed through a very small space leaving little room for error. The same is true of the mouthpiece which is much smaller than tenor or even alto. This all equates to the necessity of a very focused air stream with great control that takes a lot of practice to accomplish. The ultimate problem is intonation especially in the high register because the speed and intensity of the air stream is magnified. A great portion of the soprano’s range places it in that area of sound where the pitches are produced by very fast oscillations.(If the A above middle C is 440 cycles, doubling that number for the next A gives you an idea of the speed of vibrations in the soprano range.)

An instrument should eventually feel like an extension of one’s body for it to be used as a reflection of an artist’s personality and ideas. There should be no lag time between thought, hearing and execution. It takes practice and discipline to get to this point on any instrument. Within one to two years of concentrating on the soprano my whole technique and comfort level had doubled. As far as being hired for other gigs, it was drummer Peter Donald who said to me something to the effect: “I’m hiring a person, not an instrument!” It was my job to make the soprano expressive and flexible enough to cover and surpass those areas left vacant by dropping the tenor and within a few years, leaving the flute also.

 Solo Soprano

The group I had from 1982 through 1991 was Quest which featured pianist Richie Beirach, bassist Ron McClure and drummer Billy Hart. With this group I returned to a pure jazz setting and a group of true peers. We played in a very improvised style, loose and intense with hardly any written music. The basis of the music was the long relationship I had enjoyed with pianist Beirach dating from the late 60s. We were especially tuned into each other harmonically and with Billy and Ron in the rhythm section it was in my opinion as well as critics truly a special combination. In fact it was Richie who encouraged me to focus on the soprano because in our extensive duo work together it fit well as a result of the sympathetic blend between the soprano range and the piano. Playing unison on the two instruments was beautiful. With Quest, the soprano  grew in flexibility and certainly in range as I began to go after the altissimo register (referring to notes above high F#) which is very difficult because of the intense embouchure pressure necessary. It is still something that I have good and bad days executing depending upon my own flexibility in the moment. Steve Lacy is a master of the altissimo.

Some insights began to occur on soprano during the 80s. I realized that I was putting the same amount of air into it as on tenor which gave me a big sound. I became associated with several mouthpiece makers continually striving for the right balance between the many aspects that go into making a mouthpiece feel AND sound the way you wish. They are quite different matters and one is forever trying to balance them. Without getting too technical the opening on my mouthpiece is quite large, nearly what a normal alto sax mouthpiece opening would be. I changed from the most common soprano instrument manufacturer which for the most part had always been the Selmer Company to a German horn called Keilwerth. Their horns had a bigger bore and a larger sound which for me was perfect since I was blowing with more intensity than most soprano players who only used the horn on occasion.

On the musical front, what started to happen was a combination of the soprano itself and the way Quest played. It was as if what I had heard Miles doing right in front of me in the early 70s was finally directly rubbing off. At times the horn felt like a trumpet meaning a more rhythmic and spacious approach. I began using the rhythm section in a conversational way rather than the more common accompaniment style. Also I played less eighth notes (the most common rhythm used in improvised lines) and began to play more against as well as over the ongoing pulse. This interest in rhythmic phrasing eventually supplanted my harmonic interests more and more as time went on. In 1985 I did a solo recording using only soprano overdubs called the” Loneliness of A Long Distance Runner” (CMP Records) which I feel is an excellent representation of myself musically and artistically. (It is by the way dedicated to Steve Lacy). In 1987, I recorded “Homage to Coltrane” (Owl-Blue Note-EMI) on which I rearranged some of John’s tunes doing them all on soprano. Meanwhile, except for a rare occasion and teaching purposes, the tenor stayed in its case for almost fifteen years.

With the formation of a new group in 1991 (the Dave Liebman Group), I concentrated more on complex arrangements, odd meters, electric as well as acoustic instruments and some ethnic influences. It harkened back to the eclecticism of Lookout Farm two decades earlier. I played the soprano exclusively with the new band through the mid 90s. By this point my work was recognized, if not among the wider public, then at least by my peers as being a body of soprano playing that was individual. I felt absolutely vindicated and righteous in the decision I had made in 1980. But change was soon upon me in the mid 90s.

 The Return of the Tenor

Over the intervening years, from time to time people would ask me about the tenor and I must say it was gratifying to hear from them that they missed my sound and style. But I really didn’t think about returning to it until the mid 90s. Part of the reason had to do with the normal passages of life as I approached fifty years old in 1996. That whole year had some notable events, recordings and publications which I felt were auspicious for the event leading me to reminisce a bit and think in a more general perspective concerning the soprano.

First of all, I probably had gone as far as I could on the soprano without spending an intense practice period to get to the next level, something which my life circumstances just did not allow for at the time. I considered fifty as a milestone of sorts and maybe it was time to address some unfinished business, mainly the tenor. Part of maturing is the freedom one feels from some of youth’s ego and identity problems such as being self conscious of your place in the pantheon of jazz or the feeling that I could never play like Trane so why bother on the tenor, etc. It just didn’t seem to matter anymore what anyone thought. I must admit that for the most part I hadn’t really heard anyone in those 15 years develop something on the tenor which really impressed me. The point seemed that if so many players were going to be derivative of each other, why not play the way I did since it was at least different from the majority of tenor players. I always knew that my tone was distinctive and identifiable, so I took solace in the various lines of reason and figured the field was clear to play tenor. For more specifics, I quote from my liner notes written in 1995 on the CD “Return of the Tenor”(Double Time):

 “…From recently recording on the tenor I could hear how differently I treat the two horns. I know for a fact that by being so close to Miles Davis’ playing for a few years in the 70s, I both consciously and subconsciously absorbed some definite “trumpetisms” on the soprano-in general a way of finessing the music by playing over, around and under it. To be honest, pushing a lot of emotion through the soprano by and large is not very attractive aesthetically to my taste. I have been guilty of it so I know!! In my better musical moments I have used the soprano as a kind of gliding voice, beguiling the rhythm section, cautiously “tiptoeing through the tulips”, but the tenor is different. It’s a wild animal, a bucking bronco. With it I tend to go more directly head to head inside the music. Maybe this translates to taking more chances, more densely packed lines and roughness as well as a greater use of overtone combinations in the sound. Also more vocalizations, freer and faster rhythmic groupings, a pronounced Rollins influence, etc. For sure, it feels like a major piece of machinery compared to the ‘fish horn’. In any case, the tenor is back in my arsenal”.

In summary I am glad that I took that fifteen year period to develop myself on  one instrument rather than spreading myself out. One way or the other, it seems to me that the soprano will always be the horn closest to my musical and personal identity, though I do enjoy the tenor which uses the full force and energy of your entire torso as compared to the soprano which involves more of the top part of the body exclusively.