Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Body shape has something to do with it, or possibly everything; a physical iconography that precedes hearing. How an instrument is heard depends more largely than we might wish on how we see it played. A violinist is always in rapt conversation with himself, the sounding instrument tucked close to the ear. We know instinctively what boys are doing with guitars, which electricity transgendered from the luthier’s female form to the phallus. We sense the fitness of women playing harps, plucking celestially at falling hair; or cellos, with their incised fallopian symbols. And you don’t have to be Jane Austen, with her cunning for the sexual dynamic of music making to know that piano, however else defined, is a woman playing in her lap and gathering men round her in imagination.

It must be body shape, first and foremost, that draws me to the soprano saxophone before any other member of the family. It is not, or certainly not only, the sound. That treacherous pitching that always needs to be wrestled into line. Some modern ones have an extra high G key, though one almost invariably wishes they hadn’t. The soprano has a curious reputation, derided by jazz purists who consider it shrill and somehow unmanly, regrettably associated with “smooth” or crossover artists like Kenny G or Grover Washington (I both question the smoothness and take up cudgels on Washington’s behalf) or an easily portable wind “double” for piano players, the younger Keith Jarrett and Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim spring to mind, and was it Richard Manuel of The Band who occasionally blew a small horn?

There is something about the way the soprano projects. The larger, curved horns all have a faintly utilitarian air. They look like tools. The soprano points straight at you. That famous photograph of Sidney Bechet, with his rustic face behind the foreshortened body and bell of what should have been a clarinet, is iconic. I have a visual problem with curly sopranos, though many terrific players (Jan Garbarek, Tony Bevan; come to think of it, Richard Manuel, if it was he, pulls out a curved soprano on The Last Waltz) favour the bent variety. We needn’t get into the odder members of the family, the saxellos, manzellos and stritches, or dedicated exponents like Elton Dean, George Braith, Michael Marcus, or most obviously Roland Kirk, though I have to claim some oneiric support for these seemingly random prejudices.

I tell elsewhere that the very first time I saw and heard a saxophone play was as a very small boy on a Glasgow street sometime before Christmas. I remember hearing a strange wailing sound as my grandfather rushed me to a bus and coming round a corner to see a man illuminated by a glittering shop window, apparently in pain and with some strange metallic ectoplasm pouring from his mouth. I only caught a glimpse as we rushed past, but he was writhing, a noisy Laocoön. I know for a fact that the very next time I saw a saxophone was that same Christmas and at the circus. The clowns rushed on, and the demonic one poured a whole bucket of water down the baggy pants of his down-at-mouth fall guy, who then calmly shoved down his hands and pulled out a full demijohn. Anything that hints at pee is catnip to a five year old boy, but it was what he did next that possibly set me on course for life, and also hardened up a certain aesthetic prejudice. Having set down the brimming bottle, the second clown looked hard down his waistline, did a double take, and then dipped again into the pants and produced . . . a small curly saxophone which he played once round the ring and then out into the darkness. Sorry, guys, but every time I see a curved soprano, I see a clown. That’s my problem, not yours.
While we’re on this tack, Dr Spielvogel, I should say that possibly the next again time I saw and heard a saxophone being played was after we had moved to the coast in Scotland. Like most of people of my generation, I remember exactly where I was when John F. Kennedy tried to kill me (this is a line now much associated with the great but now ailing Christopher Hitchens, but I think I can claim priority). In 1961, we went to live on the shores of the Holy Loch, where that same year the American navy also came to stay, complete with enough missiles to destroy the world five times over – or was it six? My father adjusted the factor depending on who he was trying to scare, or convert to unilateral disarmament. There was an on the fact of it rather quaint arrangement that should there be an international crisis – and this was the 60s, people; there was nothing but international crisis – the US Navy would pack up their Polarises and put to sea, the logic being that in the event of nuclear war their Scottish hosts would die about an eighth of a second later if the Hunley were steaming through the North Channel rather than sitting in the Firth of Clyde. Fifty years later, and having returned to these parts after the final departure of the Americans, we’re now preparing ourselves to leave, which is why some of these memories seem particularly strong. When Khrushchev put a chip on his shoulder, or rather a bunch of medium range missiles below America’s underbelly, the ships all upped and sailed one morning, leaving behind a very tall, black sailor, still either drunk or sobering up, who stood on the shore below our house mournfully blowing what I already recognised from my father’s records as “Honeysuckle Rose” on a soprano saxophone. Friends with psychology diplomas have identified profound homosexual panic in this anecdote or screen memory. I prefer to think of it as thermonuclear panic, or a further omen that jazz might play some part in my future life. (I should add the extraordinary detail that just yards from where that man was playing there is a painted rock in the approximate shape of a bird with the words “Jim Crow” painted on it. Though a still unidentified local liberal still goes down every year and paints out the eyes, beak and words (in military grey, which is an odd touch), it is always restored and always defended on the grounds that Jim Crow in Scotland is merely a kind of Trickster figure and has no racist import whatsoever.)
My fifty minutes are probably up, but I sense that ambivalence toward the soprano saxophone is deeply rooted in me. I’ve admitted elsewhere in the issue to a certain ambivalence to saxophone quartets. I instinctively dislike the instrumentation and yet count Rova very high indeed on a list of essential modern artists. Secretly, I also admire the World Saxophone Quartet, the 29th Street boys when they were around, Scotland’s Hung Drawn Quartet and Brass Jaw, though the last of these have a trumpet in for the soprano voice, which may prove perversely prove my point by another route. By the same token, I think I dislike the sound of the soprano saxophone and yet I am also obsessed with it, and with its practitioners. Like all flawed children in a family, the soprano attracts particular devotion. Soprano specialists are a quite particular group, and I can’t get enough of them. I think of Evan Parker as a soprano saxophonist who still occasionally hefts a tenor. I’ve caught myself arguing that the tenor is his “better” horn, but it’s a faintly absurd proposition. Few bodies of modern music are more involving than Parker’s soprano improvisations, and if the standard-issue Evan Parker joke – “Ah, Evan Parker. Is he still playing the same solo?” – is taken to some degree, it is only a joke and like most jokes a camouflage for admiration and envy. I’m a huge admirer of Jane Bunnett, who’s bonnier than Evan Parker and tends nowadays to play in Cuban contexts but who in the past demonstrated in duos with Don Pullen that her approach to the straight soprano had something of the same obsessive harmonic niggling. Likewise bonny and similarly committed to the soprano’s awkward demands on breath is Jane Ira Bloom, whose work I’ve followed album by album down the years. Slalom (Columbia Records)and Wingwalker (Outline Music) are sample titles that convey something of the daring, but highly disciplined daring, that I hear in her work. More recently “discovered,” I hugely admire Sam Newsome, time-served in the bands of Donald Byrd and Terence Blanchard, but now exclusively devoted to the soprano and making some staggeringly good music. His Blue Soliloquy (Self-Released) jumped straight into my all-time list. A long-standing tenant there is Bobby Watson’s peerless Love Remains, made for the Red label. I love Watson’s work in that tonal area that derives from Johnny Hodges, an alto player – the alto player? – who heard his instrument up in soprano range, which is where Rabbit started. I’ve often wondered how Watson’s This Little Light of Mine, a set of unaccompanied alto pieces for the same Italian imprint, might have sounded on soprano. Quite logical, I’d have thought.
There are other soprano players or specialists that draw me back time and again. Lol Coxhill is one, obviously. Lol’s wirewalk between spontaneous composition and changes jazz has been one of the most exhilarating projects of recent times. His countryman (strictly Welsh, I think, so not quite) Tony Bevan probably garners more attention these days for his bass saxophone heroics, but Bevan is also a much underrated soprano player, even if he does insist on a curly instrument, which doesn’t suite a man of his physique. I’m currently obsessed with Joe Giardullo, a soprano man who interestingly studied with two trumpet players, Don Cherry and Wadada Leo Smith, and whose harmonic explorations seem to me almost the most interesting thing around at the moment. I believe he was invited to attend Nadia Boulanger’s composition classes at one stage, but couldn’t get finance or encountered some other obstacle. There’s probably no accolade higher. This, remember, is the woman who told Philip Glass he wasn’t a composer. So she knew what she was talking about. Giardullo inevitably leads back to the elephant in the room in any discussion of soprano saxophone playing, the great and much missed Steve Lacy, the third – with Evan and Lol – of the Three Blokes.
This is the monastic end of straight horn devotion, the strict-constructionist, ultra-violet end of a spectrum that begins with utilitarian “doubling.” I’ve often thought of taking out a year and listening to and transcribing nothing but Steve Lacy’s music, and possibly getting my own soprano playing back up and running. But then I’m 57. “Running” is the wrong metaphor and by 57 there’s a clock in the background ticking down all the stuff you won’t have time to hear again. Lacy’s devotion to the horn is, famously, the link in the soprano chain that leads from Sidney Bechet to John Coltrane. The discography is enormous and fantastically various. It’s also strikingly different in kind to the Trane corpus. One never listened to Lacy to hear the passions of a man, or not in the same way: discipline and craft are a passion, and in both senses of the word. Lacy’s composition, perhaps the most important body of jazz pieces since Monk’s, is a miracle of compression. It flirts with clownishness in the same way and strikes a rare and rarely convincing balance between the vernacular and the avant-garde. Lacy thought that playing two, three or four horns was the equivalent of bigamy. Whatever else, he was a one-woman guy on the stand. He told me once that what he admired about Monk was the absolute consistency of Monk’s language. By contrast, and intriguingly, he portrayed Cecil Taylor as a natural eclectic, drawing on different elements of the piano tradition, with just a leavening of “Cecil” to make it all rise and cohere. By contrast, he described Monk as absolutely sui generis and he became so himself. I used to find Lacy hard to listen to, hard because his monadic themes always sound like imagist poems (a better analogy than haiku) in being boiled down and down to essentials but still replete with possibility. To fill out the thought, a haiku contains an essential observation in the only form that could possibly contain it. An imagist poem is quite consciously the reduction of something larger and less coherent, a jus of melodic possibility.

I might yet find time to make a retreat with Lacy and his music, a “far cry,” you might say. I might even find time to get out my soprano again and give it one last run round the block. Unlike that American sailor, we haven’t been left behind, but we are leaving here and it might be fitting to give the seals one final, mournful chorus of “Honeysuckle Rose.” The instrument case stands beside me as a write. It supports tea in the morning, red wine at five o’clock, and a whisky for the late shift. It is very rarely opened. A recent visitor joggled it and said “I didn’t know you played snooker,” which was my cue to laugh uproariously. Definition of a gentleman is a chap who owns a soprano saxophone but doesn’t play it. I might do an Artie Shaw and have it turned into a table lamp. Or I might dust down the Lackritz stick and try to play some jazz on it.

Brian Morton©2011

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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