All About Jazz

Home » Articles » Megaphone

Dear All About Jazz Readers,

If you're familiar with All About Jazz, you know that we've dedicated over two decades to supporting jazz as an art form, and more importantly, the creative musicians who make it. Our enduring commitment has made All About Jazz one of the most culturally important websites of its kind in the world reaching hundreds of thousands of readers every month. However, to expand our offerings and develop new means to foster jazz discovery we need your help.

You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky Google ads PLUS deliver exclusive content and provide access to future articles for a full year! This combination will not only improve your AAJ experience, it will allow us to continue to rigorously build on the great work we first started in 1995. Read on to view our project ideas...


Sam Newsome: To Play or Not to Play the Soprano

Sam Newsome By

Sign in to view read count
When I think about the radical move I made 14 years ago, switching from the tenor to the soprano saxophone, I sometimes ask myself: "What in the hell were you thinking?" Even though in hindsight I look back on my decision with amazement and disbelief, I'm happy to say that it's one I've never regretted. Becoming a soprano saxophonist for me has been a life-changing journey that has restored my curiosity and excitement about music. It has strengthened me as a saxophonist, artist and person.

I have often equated the process of switching from the tenor to the soprano to being like "jumping off of a cliff and having to grow wings on the way down." Many of my fellow musicians thought my decision was drastic—and it was. It has been my experience that if you think about something for too long without taking action, you'll eventually talk yourself out of it—or worse, someone else will. Sometimes you have to just do it.

The soprano is probably still, today, one of the most enigmatic of all the saxophones. Since most people who play the soprano are alto and tenor players who double on the instrument, people hardly get a chance to hear the instrument's true sound potential. Mind you, there are plenty of saxophonists who double on it well, but when you hear the sound quality of someone who plays it as their primary instrument, you get to hear another layer of the instrument's sound. Sometimes it even sounds like a different instrument.

The first time I put on a Steve Lacy record, I thought to myself, "This guy's sound is peculiar." As a matter of fact, what sounded "peculiar" was the fact that it was full-bodied, focused and in tune—all of the things we demand from other horns without question. I think it was the first time that I had heard a soprano sound produced by someone who wasn't doubling on the instrument—except, of course, Sidney Bechet. When it comes to the soprano saxophone, players have convinced themselves that since the instrument is so difficult to play, having any goal other than playing it in tune seems over-ambitious. It's hard to imagine a saxophonist being happy with his or her sound on the alto or tenor saxophones just because it's in tune.

Several years ago I had an interesting conversation with Gerry Teekens, the producer and founder of Criss Cross Records, the label with which I recorded my first CD, SAM I AM. I told him that I had, for artistic reasons, decided to stop playing the tenor saxophone and wanted to make the soprano my main instrument. His response was classic. "Why would you want to do that? You sound just like Hank Mobley and Sonny Rollins." I then explained that that was exactly the reason why I wanted to switch. I was finding it increasingly difficult to find a sound on the tenor that I felt I could call my own, which for me was the most important thing. Jane Ira Bloom said it best when she said that playing the soprano, "You have the freedom of being under-influenced."

Later during that same conversation, he told me that switching to the soprano was risky because the soprano is a very limited instrument. Many people hold this opinion, but the reason people feel this way is that when they hear the soprano played, they aren't hearing the result of players having spent three to four hours a day over the course of several years devoted solely to developing a personal sound and approach on the soprano saxophone. Even though there are a handful of saxophonists who have carved out a niche on the instrument, it is still a relatively small number compared to the innovations that have been documented on other saxophones. Try to imagine what our perception of the tenor saxophone would be like without the diversity of approaches from Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins to John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Albert Ayler.


comments powered by Disqus

In a Mellow Tone

In a Mellow Tone

Sam Newsome
The Art of the Soprano, Vol 1

A Love Supreme (Acknowledgement)

A Love Supreme (Acknowledgement)

Sam Newsome
The Art of the Soprano, Vol 1

Boo Boo's Birthday

Boo Boo's Birthday

Sam Newsome
Monk Abstractions

CD/LP/Track Review
Take Five With...
Read more articles
Sopranoville: New Works for the Prepared and Non-Prepared Saxophone

Sopranoville: New...

Self Produced

Magic Circle

Magic Circle

Self Produced


Four by Six

Iacuessa Records

The Art of the Soprano, Vol. 1

The Art of the...

Self Produced


Related Articles

Read The Creative Music Studio Goes To College! Megaphone
The Creative Music Studio Goes To College!
by Karl Berger
Published: September 10, 2015
Read Wein, June & Jazz Megaphone
Wein, June & Jazz
by AAJ Staff
Published: June 13, 2010
Read Clean Feed Records: Looking Outwards Megaphone
Clean Feed Records: Looking Outwards
by Pedro Costa
Published: May 16, 2010
Read Discoveries Along The Pitch Continuum Megaphone
Discoveries Along The Pitch Continuum
by Amir ElSaffar
Published: April 11, 2010
Read Either/Or (No More) Megaphone
Either/Or (No More)
by Darcy James Argue
Published: February 28, 2010
Read The Power in Music Megaphone
The Power in Music
by Steve Colson
Published: February 3, 2010
Read "Mica Bethea: Quintessential Band Geek" Interviews Mica Bethea: Quintessential Band Geek
by Barbara Salter Nelson
Published: January 29, 2018
Read "14. Jazztopad 2017" In Pictures 14. Jazztopad 2017
by Nazim Can Isik
Published: November 29, 2017
Read "38th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival" Live Reviews 38th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival
by C. Andrew Hovan
Published: September 15, 2017
Read "Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene" Book Reviews Jazzing: New York City's Unseen Scene
by David A. Orthmann
Published: August 29, 2017
Read "Michael Lington At Blue Note Napa" Live Reviews Michael Lington At Blue Note Napa
by Walter Atkins
Published: October 28, 2017