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Soprano Sax: The Story Of A Skinny Horn

The soprano saxophone has never been a dominant instrument in mainstream jazz, but it's been in the mix since the beginning. Take a quick tour of the soprano sax throughout jazz history with the help of these five songs.

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Soprano Sax: The Story Of A Skinny Horn

Sidney Bechet

Sidney Bechet was the first jazz musician to use soprano saxophone extensively, and is widely regarded as the grand master of the instrument. Born and raised in New Orleans, Bechet was a contemporary of Louis Armstong — and, in a fair world, would be held in similar regard. A jazz pioneer and innovator in New Orleans jazz and blues, Bechet was making revolutionary work even early in his career. Although Billie Holiday did the first jazz version of "Summertime" in 1936, Bechet's was the first instrumental cover of the Gershwin/Heyward classic; it remains one of the best. And you can't beat his choice of sidemen: Meade Lux Lewis (piano), Teddy Bunn (guitar), Sid Catlett (drums) and Johnny Williams (bass). Together, they take a song that was written in Tin Pan Alley and make it sound as if it was born in Storyville.

John Coltrane

It's odd that perhaps the most famous soprano saxophone recording in jazz history was made by the man who revolutionized tenor sax, John Coltrane. In this classic 1960 recording of "My Favorite Things" (with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner and Steve Davis), Coltrane not only takes the soprano saxophone into totally new territory; he also gives the listener a foreshadowing of the spiritual journey he was beginning to take through his music.

Steve Lacy & Mal Waldron

Steve Lacy is one of the few saxophonists in jazz who devoted himself almost exclusively to the soprano. Though he's remembered primarily as an experimenter in free jazz, Lacy began his professional career as a Dixieland musician and, throughout his interesting and groundbreaking career, always showed a particular fondness for interpreting the compositions of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. In this live performance, we'll hear Lacy teamed up with pianist Mal Waldron (with whom he made several albums) for a delightful exploration of the Monk composition "Monk's Dream."

For more information, visit Slam Productions.

Branford Marsalis

Moving back toward Sidney Bechet, here's Branford Marsalis with "B's Paris Blues," from an album inspired by African-American painter and songwriter Romare Bearden. The "B" in the song title could certainly allude to "Bearden," since the artist spent most of 1950 in Paris, but "Bechet" was also undoubtedly on Marsalis' mind when he recorded it. In fact, Doug Wamble's guitar introduction is not unlike Teddy Bunn's intro to Bechet's version of "Summertime." Along for this stroll through the blues are bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts.

Bob Wilber

Among soprano saxophonists, Bob Wilber is almost undoubtedly the man doing the most to maintain the legacy of Sidney Bechet. As a high-school student in the late 1940s, Wilber began taking lessons from Bechet. Upon graduation from high school, Wilber actually lived with Bechet for a time so that he could soak up more of his music. Since Bechet's death in 1959, Wilber has continued to champion and play the music of his mentor. "Echo of Spring," written by Willie "The Lion" Smith, is primarily known as a solo piano piece, but it also works beautifully as a vehicle for Wilber's soprano. The elegant piano accompaniment is provided by the late stride pianist Ralph Sutton.

Nick Morrison