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AND NOW, CLASSICAL SAXOPHONE

Times Staff Writer

Leo Potts is eager to affix the lofty classical music label to the saxophone, a culturally disdained instrument that has long been a staple in marching bands and jazz groups.

So Potts, along with his pianist friend Jack Reidling, fired a salvo in the quest with their new album exclusively of classical music for the saxophone for Crystal Records.

There aren’t many in the catalogue--the latest Schwann Artists’ Issue lists approximately 50 titles--and the bulk of those are in extremely limited circulation.

“The saxophone is not making it as a classical instrument in the United States,” said Potts, 41. “In France and Belgium, you can turn on a radio and hear a live sax quartet. . . . But not one saxophonist (in this country) is making his living as a touring concert artist. All are affiliated with colleges or universities.”

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Potts himself is busy teaching music at Cal State Long Beach and playing in commercial ventures, all the while aching to be a major concert artist: Maybe not as the Heifetz of the sax himself, but perhaps a mentor to whoever is.

“I play commercial music, that’s how I make a living,” said Potts, who lives in Garden Grove. “But my love is for classical music.”

His album, entitled “Leo Potts Saxophone,” includes recent music by Paule Maurice, Sayaka Akiyama, Jack Hayes and Reidling, performed by Potts on soprano and alto saxophones and Reidling on piano. All the music was written for saxophone, except for two transcriptions: Grieg’s piano piece “Erotik,” and Reidling’s “Johnny,” originally written for the flute.

“The repertory is limited,” Potts admitted, “though there are a lot of works by French composers, and present-day composers are writing more.

“Jack and I do a lot of transcriptions. But when we do, we try to be authentic in our approach and to play within that style or context. We play Mozart like the Guarneri String Quartet would play him. We may not succeed. But we’re trying.”

The world of classical sax players is a small but divided one, Potts said. He said the division accentuates the problem of achieving classical status.

“We all know each other, but we don’t agree on what the instrument should sound like,” Potts said.

“A lot of my colleagues are looking for dark tones. Donald Sinta and Eugene Rousseau, for instance, play with a very dark sound that is woody in quality. I say to them, ‘If that’s what you want, why not play the bass clarinet?’

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“My sound takes what I’ve learned as a classical musician and what I’ve learned from the commercial world. It’s more singing, vocal in quality.

“I think one reason the instrument is not making it in the classical world is (that) it should sound more vocal.”

Potts confessed to a lifelong love affair with the instrument after being inspired by jazz artists such as Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker.

“I was very much drawn to their lyrical, singing way of playing,” he said.

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But he ran into obstacles when he wanted to major in the instrument at Cal State Long Beach. Music authorities there did not consider the instrument respectable enough for a major, Potts said. So he turned to the bassoon and played in the university orchestra.

“Later, they decided, ‘Yes, the sax is a legitimate instrument. Let him major in it.’ ”

With diploma and sax in hand, Potts left for France to pursue further studies with Marcel Mule at the National Conservatory of Paris. Mule was, Potts said, “the father of classical sax.”

“He really started it all. A lot of the compositions written in the 1930s and ‘40s were written for him.”

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The French and the Belgians had been partial to the instrument since it was invented in the early 1840s by Adolpe Sax, himself a Belgian, originally as a much-needed bridge between clarinets and the tenor brass section in military bands.

Potts came home to become saxophone instructor at his alma mater.

“Now every major university (in the United States), and even state universities, all have instructors in sax,” Potts said.

He has been passing on the flame at Long Beach for the last 10 years, where he teaches an average of 13-15 saxophone majors yearly. Most of his students will chose between commercial music careers or teaching in college. “But whether they aspire to the commercial (music) world or not,” Potts said, “the majors learn the instrument correctly from the classical point of view.”

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Potts scoffs at the instrument’s reputation for being easy to learn.

“Easy? It’s the most difficult wind (instrument) to play artistically,” he said, citing difficulties in creating a legato line, pitch or intonation problems and the actual mechanism for voicing notes.

“There are problems with the instrument acoustically which have not yet been solved,” Potts said. Yamaha, for which Potts is an artist-clinician, is one instrument manufacturer that is developing prototypes that attempt to redress these problems. The company is experimenting with building the instrument with different, more evenly resonant materials, situating the tone holes in slightly different locations and changing their diameters.

“The differences will be recognizable to musicians, which in turn will be recognizable to an audience,” he said.

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Potts’ album so far is drawing positive responses, but he doubts that it will become a best seller.

“We did the record not for giant records sales,” he said, “but with the hope that somebody would hear it, like what they heard and ask Leo and Jack to play for (them). I would like to be playing a lot more in the classical mode--for my soul and my being. The fight is on.”


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