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SOLO FLIGHTS - Jazz Times, June 2000

extract from BILL SHOEMAKER'S article on
Anthony Braxton - Steve Lacy - Jackie McLean - John Butcher


For saxophonists, it is the ultimate artistic risk. Audiences are often not prepared for the stark power that can be conveyed in a solo sax show, nor for the prolonged concentration required to absorb music that is often far afield from familiar jazz environs. There is an intrinsic element of confrontation to an unaccompanied saxophone solo - between the artist and his horn and the room; between the audience and their preconceptions - which partially accounts for this elemental approach to music remaining on the margins.

Another factor in the relative obscurity of solo saxophone is that its history has been built on misinformation. Jazz histories generally cite Coleman Hawkins' "Picasso", recorded in 1948 for Norman Granz's The Jazz Scene, as the first jazz solo saxophone recording (it is included on Verve's expanded CD repackaging of the classic collection of 78s and photographs). They're wrong. Despite historian J. R. Taylor's evidence that "Picasso" was recorded in 1946, Hawkins' own "Hawk's Variations" was waxed first, in January 1945. But what really clouds the Hawk-dominated Genesis story of the solo sax performance is Fats Waller reedman Gene Sedric's 1937 unaccompanied tenor recording, "Saxophone Doodle." And according to historian Vladimir Simosko, baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff made a solo tenor recording of "Body and Soul" in 1939 or '41, suggesting solo flights began earlier and were more widespread than commonly believed.

Yet, the most prejudicial misconception surrounding the history of the solo saxophone is that it is the exclusive domain of an obscurant avant garde, hell-bent on sonic abrasion. It's a rap that doesn't withstand the facts, unless you lump Lee Konitz's ruminative 1974 release Lone-Lee (Steeplechase) in with notorious squallathons like Kaoru Abe's 1977 Solo Live at Gaya (DIW) series. In 1960, Sonny Rollins was the toast of the jazz world, his sardonic wit at its zenith, and Eric Dolphy had yet to become the poster boy of anti-jazz, though he had the most lacerating alto attack on the scene; but Rollins' '58 reading of "Body and Soul" (Brass and Trio, Verve) and Dolphy's solo alto recordings of "Tenderly" in '6o (Far Cry, OJC) are among their most straightforward, heartfelt performances. Even avatars like Anthony Braxton and Sieve Lacy seem to save their most poignant compositions - like Braxton's hushed ballads collected as "Composition 138" on 19 [Solo] Compositions, 1988 (New Albion) and Lacy's elegiac "Blues for Aida" (Blues for Aida; Egg Farm) - for solo saxophone.

Since Braxton's first solo alto saxophone concert in 1967, the thrust of solo saxophone music has been to expand conceptual and technical parameters. Yet, within that general mandate, two trends have emerged. Represented by Braxton and Lacy (who credits a 1970 Braxton solo concert for inspiring his own work), one trend conceptualizes solo music as a conduit between a saxophonist’s improvisational lexicons and a body of compositions - originals and jazz perennials alike. The other, favored by both arch hard-bopper Jackie McLean and free improviser John Butcher, fuses method and form, as most, if not all decisions concerning both the general shape and specific details of the performance are made in mid-flight.

These excerpts from recent interviews reveal the diversity of sensibilities currently shaping this risky, rewarding endeavor.

..............     see Jazz Times for Braxton / Lacy / McLean interviews

jazz times clipping


"An improviser's viewpoint, and an improviser's experience, comes mainly from playing with other people. The thing that gives improvisation its freshness is having to deal with other people's ideas. Playing solo is a peculiar situation in that you're only dealing with your own ideas. It's not obvious what replaces that stimulus of other people's ideas. There's quite a danger in solo improvising of falling into a pattern, playing stuff you know, and presenting these routines almost like they're compositions. It never feels very satisfactory doing that. I often find that when I'm playing and I've hit upon something that I know will work, and will produce quite good music, I have the strange feeling that I have to leave it alone, and not go with it. It's that kind of ambivalence that's operating all the time in a practical way.

It boils down to a balance between just going with things that you know will be successful and trying to discover new connections and slightly different possibilities each time. I think you need a fair proportion of the latter, particularly if you're going to do it a number of times a year. If you're just going to play solo once or twice a year, it wouldn't be a problem. Occasionally, you'll get five or six solo gigs in a row, and then it's almost a personal psychological thing instead of a musical thing, because if you're playing something from the night before, no one in the audience knows, which makes it even more important to leave it alone. But there's only a fair proportion of a concert where you can do that, because you can't throw everything out; there's no way you can really start over each night. You just try to keep a bit of it like that every night. One thing that is on your side is that every room is a different acoustic, which suggests some things that will work and some things that won't work. That forces your hand a little, not so much in the broad sweep of things, but in the details.

I think the real technical limitation of the saxophone in solo playing is its lack of sustain. The instruments most commonly accepted as solo instruments have sustain, in the sense that you can play a note, create a sound, and that sound carries on without having to maintain the physical input. With wind instruments, of course, if you stop blowing, there's no sound. That presents an awful lot of musical problems. There's no getting around the inability to produce a sound while another sound is decaying. That's why it is so physically demanding to play solo, because you're blowing all the time, unless you're in a church or somewhere where the room helps you some. Some people who aren't used to playing solo are blown-out after a 10-minute piece. There are many opportunities for little rests when you're improvising in a group. There's a couple of things I do to help me physically. I have a natural interest in using a certain amount of silence in the course of a piece, which can help a lot. I also alternate between soprano and tenor, partly because of their sonic characters, but also because you use your muscles differently, and you're not straining the same muscles all the time. By alleviating the physical stress, you're less likely to fall into patterns and more likely to play something really fresh and new.

I use a lot of materials, which work in what are potentially unstable areas of the saxophone, like playing chords. Some chords you can get [snaps] - like an ordinary note; others are very contingent on the reed and where you're coming from before you play them. There's quite a bit of leeway for things not coming out quite as you anticipate. It's dealing with the unpredictability of those situations that can lead you off somewhere unexpected sometimes. Technically, there's only a thin dividing line between the sound you want and some horrible squawk. But I find this instability quite creative, particularly when you're using techniques that aren't part of the common saxophone repertoire. Because they are so striking you actually have to be more careful how you use them as ingredients than the usual vocabulary of the saxophone.

Sometimes, the more striking a sound is, the less you should use it."

© Bill Shoemaker/Jazz Times