The Iron Clarinet

The soprano saxophone has had a fairly schizoid history as an instrument and this is fitting, because it comes in two completely different forms. There’s the straight one, which looks like a slightly bloated clarinet that’s been dipped in brass. And the curved one, which looks like a miniature alto saxophone, to be used as a kid’s toy or as a prop in a staging of Gulliver’s Travels. As alto saxophonist Campbell Ryga (more on him later) puts it, the curved soprano isn’t a saxophone, it’s “more of a brooch”. I don’t know much about saxophones, but I’m told the curved one is mellower sounding and easier to control and play in tune, intonation problems have often plagued the horn. Most players favour the straight one though, its sound seems to cut through more and the fingering isn’t quite as cramped as on the tiny curved model. Or maybe it’s because the tubular model doesn’t look as ridiculous, I don’t know. In keeping with the instrument’s physical duality, for many years there were only two main stylistic models aspiring soprano players could look to and each represented an extreme : the original master Sidney Bechet, who epitomized the earliest traditions of jazz, or John Coltrane, who came much later and represented the avant-garde.

For a long time Bechet had the soprano field all to himself, he began playing the straight one along with his first instrument, the clarinet, sometime in the early ’20s. This established a pattern that would later become common : most play the soprano as a double along with another saxophone, to add a different voice to their musical arsenal. Bechet focused on the soprano more and more, to the point where he played it almost exclusively later in his career and many forgot what a great clarinettist he was. Although he’s an indisputable jazz giant, it took me a while to fully appreciate Bechet because at first I couldn’t get past his sound. It seemed harsh and strident, as he used a very fast, wide open vibrato constantly, which got on my nerves. What finally won me over was hearing his 1940 HRS session with Muggsy Spanier on cornet, guitarist Carmen Mastren and bassist Wellman Braud – the “Sidney Bechet-Muggsy Spanier Big Four”. Maybe it’s because their music is just so good, or maybe I was just ready, but hearing these tracks woke me up to what a total master Bechet was – his incomparable swing, sound, phrasing, feeling, sense of the blues and interplay – you name it, he has it. This is one of the great one-off sessions and probably the hottest chamber-jazz ever recorded.

One of Bechet’s pupils was Johnny Hodges, who played the soprano occasionally along with his alto, but gave the smaller horn up after about 1940.  Bob Wilber and Steve Lacy each played soprano during the ’50s and although both were excellent musicians, neither had much influence during this period in converting others to the horn or showing a new way to play it. In Wilber’s case, this was because he represented the past as an unapologetic revivalist who played the horn very much in Bechet’s mold (though using a curved one) and Lacy was a maverick who represented a future nobody – not even him – could quite see yet. Both men went on to have long, prolific careers and deserve credit for keeping the soprano alive and semi-warm before Coltrane began playing it and everybody jumped on that stylistic bandwagon. Wilber played the clarinet and other saxophones, but showed the soprano could still be a viable and vital voice in traditional jazz, perhaps providing inspiration for others who followed this retro-path, like Jim Galloway and Kenny Davern. Lacy was the first musician to play the soprano exclusively, and the sheer length and productivity of his uncompromising career have made him a hero and influence to others who have specialized on the horn. Oddly, many of these have been women with the first name Jane – Jane Ira Bloom, Jane Bunnett, Jane Fair.

But of course it was Coltrane who created the soprano saxophone craze through a flukey but optimally timed accident. He gave a fellow saxophonist a ride and the guy left his straight soprano in Coltrane’s trunk, so Trane began playing around with it, intrigued with the sonic and expressive possibilities of the tubular horn. This was about 1960, when Coltrane was already becoming increasingly influential and experimenting with modality and the influence of Indian music, among other things. The smaller horn had a keening, plangent sound which cut through the sometimes bottom-heavy sound of Elvin Jones’ drumming and the pedal points or drones Jimmy Garrison played on the bass. The soprano also had an incantational, chanting quality, not unlike the bagpipes or some Asiatic reed instruments, which fit the emotional climate of some of the music Coltrane was trying to play.

The tenor was still his main voice, but Coltrane used the soprano very effectively in modal and exotic contexts and a whole generation of young saxophonists took note, for better or worse. I like his soprano playing, but this has almost everything to do with the fact it’s Coltrane playing it and very little to do with the horn itself. Occasionally it sounded as though he was overblowing, trying to put too much air into the horn and the effect is squawky and the pitch iffy, though his visionary ideas and the intensity of what he was playing often made these moot points. When he played more gently though, he achieved a startling and new kind of beauty, as on “Central Park West”. Either way, his influence became so pervasive in those years that he rose to deityhood, and if he’d taken up the kazoo or the Jew’s harp as a secondary instrument, hundreds would have followed suit, as they did in taking up the soprano.

Unfortunately, most of these followers went for the more aggressive and obvious snake-charmer, messianic aspects of Trane’s soprano playing and missed the more subtle, Elysian lyricism of it – to be sure, there were excesses by his followers in the decade or two following his death. I certainly don’t blame Coltrane for these sins and even his worst imitators were only partly to blame. The late-’60s were in many ways tough times for jazz for a number of reasons. There was less work in fewer and fewer clubs and jazz record labels began cutting back or shutting down as rock and roll had taken over both the music business and to an extent, as a musical influence too. Jazz seemed to be going down in flames and Coltrane represented to many one of the few viable musical directions to follow in it. As bad as things became though, there was something far worse just around the corner : the ’70s.

Speaking right across the board, I doubt there has ever been a decade as aesthetically ugly as the ’70s, it was marked by an almost total lack of taste and restraint in everything. Bad hair, big glasses, clunky shoes. Huge, ugly gas-guzzling cars with roofs made of vinyl or velvet, the Gremlin and the Pacer from AMC. Bad clothes made from cheap materials like polyester and velour in hideously bright colours, lots of orange, baby blue, yellow, maroon and plaids, plaids, plaids. Bad music, marked by as many cheesy electronic effects as possible, with laughably stupid ways to listen to it, like the 8-track tape (big, clunky and bright!) or the quadraphonic sound system, Jesus. And the psychedelic visual effects running amok in TV, movies, advertising and everywhere else, it was all like a suburban acid trip gone bad with the kaleidoscopic swirls, the fast zooms and close-ups, the kooky camera angles and the colour filters. It was as if Hollywood, Madison Ave. and Wall St. all copped on at once that there was money to be made from all that weird hippie, Haight-Ashbury rock stuff left over from the ’60s and everything became groovy, baby, like nowsville. Wokka-wokka-wokka-wokka, shake your booty.

It wasn’t all bad. Somehow, some good books, movies, records and so on were produced, but to find them you had to wade waist-deep through a mire of dreck. Nothing has dated as quickly or badly as the worst crap from the disco decade though and some of this trend-obsessed bad taste found its way into jazz, certainly into the recording studio. Aside from the excesses of fusion, even relatively straight-ahead jazz records were plagued by the newly available sound effects of the day. If there was a Fender Rhodes or an electric harpsichord lying around the studio, guys would play a few tracks using them, just because they were there. Or maybe use two basses at once, one electric, through an octave-divider, or how about putting the horns through a flanger or a phase-shifter – far out! Engineers became lazy, preferring to record the string bass just from a line to the pickup – why bother with microphones? – resulting in a whole slew of records where the bass sounds all nasal, like it has a bad cold. Same with the drums – the high-tuning jazz drummers used was a pain to record with the close-miking technique on every drum that became all the rage then, so clear plastic heads and looser, flabbier “rock-tuning” were encouraged. This resulted in drums that went “flubbida-wubbida-glubbida”, sounding like fish flopping around on the bottom of a metal boat.

Amidst all this schlock was a small army of new guys armed with soprano saxophones, wielding them not as musical instruments, but weapons, agents of rage and apocalypse, dispensers of jazz napalm. The general idea seemed to be to play as many notes as possible, with maximum anger and aggression. The sound was usually shrill and thin, the mood dystopian-Arabic; there were lots of weird scales, but very little melody. Romance went right out the window, you could practically smell the camel dung and it reached the point where if someone whipped out his soprano, you put up your hands in an “I surrender” sign, just as people do now when I grab the bow. It was this kind of playing that earned the soprano such nicknames as “the gloom tube”, “the angst stick” or “the golden oboe of doom”. None of this had anything to do with John Coltrane, who was by then dead and likely rolling around in his grave at these excesses.

Eventually this all became tiresome and oppressive and ran its course, as trends often do. When the dust from this brief musical Armageddon settled, saxophonists could find a more reasoned and balanced alternative approach to the soprano, poised between the extremes of Bechet and Coltrane, if they were willing to delve into the past a little. The master tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson took up the soprano in 1956, a full four or five years before Coltrane did, but at first nobody noticed. For one thing, he was living in Paris at the time, not exactly the jazz centre of the universe, despite its citizens’ delusions to the contrary. And secondly, few ever noticed much that Lucky did in his lifetime, his was one of the least apt nicknames ever bestowed in jazz. He was a great saxophonist and other musicians knew and valued this, but he’d always been his own man, slightly out of step with the times, he was never one to dance to trends. Though he came up through bebop, his saxophone models were Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas, and the highly personal style he developed from their example always had an older quality about it, but also a purity and beauty that made it timeless, even futuristic. It took years for many people to catch up, to realize and appreciate what an original and interesting player he was and by that time, he’d retired from music, utterly dispirited.

At any rate, he took up the soprano and worked away at it, eventually having the Selmer saxophone company make him a matched tenor and soprano, horns that are now owned by Toronto saxophonist Pat LaBarbera. I’ve seen the soprano and it’s very distinctive looking, it has a darker, more copper-coloured lacquer than most sopranos. Pat tells me it’s a beautiful horn to play and the fact a master like Thompson played it can’t hurt any. Unlike Coltrane and subsequent others, Lucky didn’t rush into playing the small horn, but spent some time mastering it, not recording with it until 1959, over a year before Coltrane’s recorded soprano debut. Nor did he use it to try to achieve specific or exotic musical moods or effects. He simply liked the sound of the soprano and used it as a higher-pitched extension of his saxophone persona, another voice.

And what a sound he got : fat and warm rather than thin, mellow rather than shrill. His phrasing on soprano was smooth instead of forced, his intonation excellent. In Thompson’s hands, the soprano actually sounds like a musical instrument, instead of a circus one or something you’d summon goats with. By the time he returned to America in 1962, he was using the soprano as often as the tenor, often alternating between them on successive songs on classic records like Lucky Strikes and Plays Jerome Kern and No More. Before leaving Europe, Thompson recorded one of his best albums, Lord, Lord, Am I Ever Gonna Know? in the spring of 1961, with the very sympathetic band of Martial Solal on piano, Peter Trunk on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. The track entitled “Two Steps Out” is an unaccompanied saxophone solo, on which Thompson plays 20- and 12-bar blues choruses, moving between tenor and soprano and in two tempos. Though unusual, there’s nothing gimmicky or show-offish about it, he simply explores the different timbres of the two horns, switching between the two seamlessly in what amounts to a saxophone master-class.

Zoot Sims did much the same thing years later when he took up the soprano, but Zoot had a larger profile than Thompson and people noticed his soprano playing more. It had many of the same virtues as Lucky’s, though obviously Zoot brought his own musical personality to his straight horn, which he nicknamed “Sidney”. Like Thompson, he made the soprano sound like a musical instrument, a saxophone that was a higher-pitched extension of his tenor playing. He played in tune, the sound was warm and refined and of course he swung on the straight soprano just as much as he did on the tenor. He chose to play certain tunes on the soprano which suited it, often these were waltzes, like “Emily”, “Jean”, “The Jitterbug Waltz” or “Rosemary’s Baby”, the modal theme from the movie. Lucky Thompson is far and away my favourite soprano saxophonist, but Zoot is a close second.

Together these men showed a way to approach the instrument that filled in the gaps between the sonic and stylistic extremes of Bechet and Coltrane. Each played their own version of bebop/mainstream on the soprano, while conquering the horn’s intonation problems and tendency toward stridency, probably by playing it more gently than others. Brass master Guido Basso has said you must attack the trumpet, but you have to caress the flugelhorn, make love to it. I don’t know the first thing about playing the saxophone, but I think the same may be true with the soprano : it has its own unique properties and challenges that must be tamed. It took a while, but Lucky and Zoot were the ones to tame it, to make the soprano sound like a member of the saxophone family. This is not to say that either is “better” or more important than Bechet or Coltrane – that would be silly – but simply to say that Thompson and Sims provided some other options, some much-needed balance.

It’s hard to say exactly how much influence either man had – retroactively, I think quite a lot, but it’s not something that can be proved. They’re both gone now, but the whole CD-reissue process and the growth of jazz education has made musicians more aware of Thompson and Sims than before, their music is still alive to be heard. For whatever reasons, the soprano sax is now being played better and with a wider range of styles and expression than ever before, people no longer flinch when somebody picks it up. For example, I very much like the sounds Branford Marsalis and Art Themin get on the horn. Mike Murley is one of the few modern guys to use the curved one, he plays it very musically and takes care to select songs to play on the soprano which suit it.

I was moved to write all this by a happy musical reunion this week between Vancouver-based saxophonist Campbell Ryga and the Mark Eisenman Trio; I also have Campbell to thank for the title. Cam was in Toronto to do some clinics and concerts for Yamaha instruments; Patti and John Loach took advantage of this by booking Cam as a special guest along with the trio on Monday and Wednesday, the latest in their continuing salon-concert series “Jazz In the Kitchen”.

It’s tempting to say Campbell Ryga is one of Canada’s best saxophonists and he is, but that doesn’t go far enough – as far as I’m concerned, he’s one of the best saxophonists playing anywhere now, period. His main horn is the alto, and it seems fewer and fewer people are playing it in recent years, as the tenor has come to rule the saxophone roost. I’m told the alto is harder to play than the tenor, it takes longer to master sound and intonation on it, plus there are transposition challenges to playing an Eb horn like the alto. Also, there are fewer stylistic influences to follow for alto players.

Campbell long ago mastered these challenges and only sounds more in command of the horn than he was when he lived here briefly and we played together often. The first thing you notice when he’s playing is his sound; it’s very warm, refined and fat, it sings but he never plays loud or seems to strain, this pure saxophone sound just seems to pour out, unforced. A number of people commented on how sweet his sound is and they’re right – it is sweet – but never cloying or syrupy. The best way I can describe it is to say it’s the kind of sound you want to hear more of, and he’s in utter control of it.

He knows his way around Charlie Parker and bebop, has some Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods and Gene Quill in him and probably some P.J. Perry too, to name another great alto player from western Canada. But he long ago synthesized all of these various influences into a seamless personal style, he sounds like himself. The smoothness of his delivery and intonation almost belie the intensity and passion of what he plays – there’s some heat here for sure, but it always sounds relaxed and fluent.

Cam is also a very interesting player from a rhythmic perspective, his time is very unmannered. He doesn’t play behind the beat or backphrase as much as many do, nor does he push the beat, he plays mostly with the beat, or occasionally alongside it. He has the flexibility and chops to play all manner of rhythmic permutations against the basic pulse – double-time, various triplet groupings etc. – but only where these seem natural, he doesn’t overdo it, he’s very easy to play with. Oh, and I almost forgot – he can play some blues too. It was such a pleasure for us to play with him again, so refreshing to hear the alto saxophone sound like this.

Campbell also plays the soprano and sounded very good on it the last time I heard him play it, years ago. On Monday night, I noticed his soprano on the saxophone stand, a straight one, but with a very slight bend in the neck between the mouthpiece and the main body of the horn. I asked him about this later and Cam told me it was a Yamaha, the only model with such a small curve, and that the bend made it a little easier to control, a little mellower. He picked it up for a couple of tunes late in the proceedings on Monday and his playing has only improved, he sounded simply beautiful on soprano. All his virtues on the alto were translated – the refinement, the great intonation, the smoothness – it sounded just like a saxophone, only higher pitched. When the applause died down after his first soprano number, he held the horn up and introduced it with his mischievous smile, “Ladies and gentlemen, the iron clarinet”, which broke us all up. He didn’t bring the soprano on Wednesday and I was mildly disappointed – trust me, I don’t say that too often when guys leave the fish-horn at home – but then I realized this just meant there was more room for the alto.

With Lucky and Zoot dead and gone, Campbell Ryga is now my favourite living soprano saxophonist. He’s no Kenny G or anything, but he’s pretty good……..

© 2013 – 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “The Iron Clarinet

  1. Thanks for the ‘Iron Clarinet’ buddy!! I miss you Steve I really do! I was really looking forward to this opportunity to once again perform with you, John and Mark at the wonderful JITK series at John and Patti Loach’s home – absolutely big time!

    I really can’t tell you guys how much I needed this – my eternal gratitude, you all make me feel like I never really left.


  2. Hi Steve, We met when you came to Perth Australia in the ’80s with Woody. Thanks for a great piece on Sid Weiss (his centenary is this month & I will do a on-air tribute). I met him in ’68 when I was working at a sound studio in Hollywood and he came by for the union. I enjoyed his stories for an hour and later he introduced me to Jess Stacy, starting a life-long friendship with Jess. Your name came up a few yrs ago when Richard Whiteman (now a bassist) came to Melb with the lovely Irene Atman. Very much enjoying your blog and look forward to reading more. If the time diff is not too bad, hope you can tune in via the net to my shows. Might even drag out the old interview with you…

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