(1) Sidney Bechet (New Orleans Jazz Soprano): From Bechet I learned how to play with a big, robust sound throughout the entire range of the instrument as well as with a sub-tone, which is very difficult on the soprano. I also learned how to play vertically on the chord changes. Chromaticism wasn’t as popular during Bechet’s time. Players from his era usually played triads and arpeggios with some blues alterations. And improvising using this type of vertical approach also helps you to learn how to project on the instrument.
(3) Steve Lacy (Postbop/Modern/Free Jazz Soprano): Lacy is great to listen to if you want to learn how to get the most out of each note. Lacy always put sound first, notes second. I consider Lacy to be the first saxophonists to get a pure soprano sound. And I say this because when you hear Sydney Bechet, it sounds more like a clarinet with a different timbre--which is understandable, being that that was his first instrument. Also, Lacy's sound has a certain fullness that can only come from playing it exclusively.
(4) John Coltrane (Modern Jazz Soprano): From Coltrane I learned how to use the instrument to sustain high levels of energy for extended periods of time. He popularized the soprano as the energy saxophone. Also, with Coltrane being influenced by Eastern religion and music, he was one of the first to use it in a world music context. People often focus on how Coltrane said he heard the soprano as being an extension of his tenor playing, but it was much deeper than that. He was actually the first to showcase the instrument's exotic quality.
(5) Wayne Shorter (Electric and Fusion Jazz Soprano): Wayne is great to listen to if you want to learn how to create drama on the instrument. He is a master of evoking many different emotions through the horn. I consider Wayne's soprano recordings to be lessons in sonic theater. Until Wayne came along the soprano was pretty much delegated to being the "black sheep" of the mainstream jazz world. However, Wayne gave the soprano a home in fusion and more electronic-oriented jazz.
(6) Dave Liebman (Post - Modern Jazz Soprano): Lieb’s soprano playing is great to check out if you want to learn how to combine raw emotional playing with harmonic sophistication. He's definitely got one of the most distinctive soprano sounds in modern jazz. As a matter of fact, his work with Elvin Jones set the precedent for post modern soprano. I would say that his influence on young saxophonists of my generation was the equivalent to Michael Brecker's on the Generation X tenor players.
(7) Evan Parker (Free Jazz Soprano): Evan is great to check out if you want to learn the many sonic possibilities of the soprano. He’s a master of extended techniques. I think of Evan as being like the Jackson Pollack of the instrument.. He broke down the barriers on how we think about the instrument in that there is no apparent link to the past history of jazz.
(8) Branford Marsalis (Modern Jazz/Classical Soprano): Branford is a master of showing the versatility of the instrument. He's great to check out if you want to learn how to use the soprano in any context from pop to Ornette Coleman type of improvisation. I've noticed that many contemporary saxophonists who also double have a similar sound concept as Branford, only not as developed. Which probably goes to show how influential he is. One of the things that makes Branford’s sound so unique is that he also borrows from the classical saxophone sound concept—which is similar to the oboe.
(9) Jane Ira Bloom (Modern, Free Jazz Soprano): Jane is truly an original. She has created something that's uniquely her own. Sound-wise, she's similar to Branford in that she, too, has a classical sound concept. And like Lacy, Jane's sound has a full-bodiedness that one gets from playing the instrument exclusively. One of the things that I copped from Jane was using the soprano to create the Doppler effect by swaying the instrument from side to side. It's one of those things that's very specific to the soprano.
(10) Keith Jarrett (Modern, Free Jazz Soprano): Keith is probably the most surprising name on the list. But I think he has one of the most organic soprano sounds and approaches I've heard. I like it because his playing is timbre-oriented and not lick-oriented. It doesn't sound like he's hearing anything but the true sound of the instrument. I wish he had recorded more on the instrument. I've cited Coltrane as highlighting the instrument's exotic quality, but Jarrett is definitely is on that list, too. He differs in that he actually uses the soprano as a type of double-reed folk instrument.
Please check out my book Life Lessons from the Horn and my new CD, Sopranoville.