Ever heard a C melody saxophone? Probably not. This unusual instrument from the saxophone family was all the rage in the 1920s — as were gut strings (and wildly expressive vibrato).
In his new album The Golden Age Project, saxophonist Nick Russoniello dusts off an old C-melody saxophone (an original from 1926) and revitalises the sound of this lively era.
With The Golden Age Quartet, Nick has researched and recorded classics from Gershwin and the like, and even composed some new music to celebrate this old-fashioned style. He tells CutCommon how he did it.
Nick, you’ve released a new album with a classic 1920s aesthetic. What draws you to this music and culture from one century ago?
Looking back at the 1920s, it must have been a thrilling time to be alive. Everything from that era, especially in the United States, seems amazingly confident, optimistic, and colourful. The US was truly thriving in its new role as leaders of the free world. I think that’s why the idea of the Roaring Twenties has stayed with us for so long. The music, of course, reflects this.
The saxophone holds a special place in the 1920s. It was a new instrument for a new era. There was a genuine ‘saxophone craze’ in the States at this time, everyone wanted to play the sax. The leading saxophone players of those years — Rudy Wiedoeft, The Brown Brothers — were incredible by any standards.
It’s hard not to be drawn into all of this.
Your album features what one might call “historically informed performance”, though the term is usually associated with far older music! Tell us how you’re recreating the sound of the era, and why you were after an authentic feel.
Yes, I never thought I would make a ‘historically informed’ recording, but there you go! My wife Julia Russoniello (pictured below) is a period performance violinist and researcher; her field is early 20th-Century performance practice. To overly simplify, she has been to trying find out about the nuances of violin performance just before the invention of sound recording.
People tend to associate the sound of gut strings with baroque and classical period performance. However, it is less known that gut string material was still being used in the early 20th Century. Violinists were widely playing on gut strings until the 1930s, and then many continued to use a combination of gut, steel wound gut, and a ‘wire’ E string for another decade or so. This factor alone meant that string playing used to sound different.
The idea of pairing this 1920s period string sound with a saxophone of that era was just too tempting. These instruments are so colourful and evocative, playing on them sparked many different creative decisions. We wanted to bring something different to this album.
So that explains why you opted to record with the rare C melody saxophone. Why do you reckon this then-popular instrument faded away over the years?
Yes, the C melody is a really a special part of the album. Like the historical string instruments, it is softer and more mellow than a modern saxophone.
The C melody was the king of the 1920s saxophone craze. It was hugely popular among amateur saxophone players because it is in concert pitch, so is perfect for home sing-a-longs with a piano. It has a remarkably colourful sound, but ultimately the fad just died out and the C melody disappeared.
I think the biggest reason for its demise is that it couldn’t compete with the raw volume and power of the E-flat alto and B-flat tenor. These other saxophones were of greater use in the big band and swing era.
These instruments in mind, you chose to create new arrangements of older works — but also compose new music. Why did you want to create contemporary music in an older style?
Yes, we’re thinking of the album as ‘historical new music’. We don’t really try to recreate the past, but use sounds from the past as seeds for new ideas.
The new compositions are inspired by the 1920s, but do not sound like music from the 1920s. Valse Rudy, for example, borrows the form of a 1920 waltz but is far more contemporary in its approach to the saxophone’s extended techniques.
My other original, Harbour City Suite, depicts events happening in Sydney in the 1920s, but I use my own approach to harmony and melody. It’s at times chromatic and at other times modal, at times lyrical but at other times quite angular. It’s music about the 1920s, but sounds nothing like the music of George Gershwin or Irving Berlin.
Now, this album wasn’t without its struggles. On social media, you joked about something that’s actually pretty serious — the experience of carpal tunnel syndrome during production! How did you balance your healing while sticking to the schedule of recording and releasing this album?!
We started to record this album in late 2019 — and everyone knows what happened then! One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that I had time to investigate some of the aches and pains I had been ignoring. I had been experiencing numbness in my fingers, especially overnight and in the early mornings. It wasn’t too bad yet, it wasn’t affecting my playing, but it was getting worse. I wasn’t surprised to have it diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome, as it runs in my family and I have pushed myself really hard in the past few years, completing a doctorate and playing far too much saxophone.
The surgery itself is quite a small procedure, just a day surgery — but it takes about five weeks to get your hand back to full usage. The pandemic was the perfect time to do this, I didn’t have to cancel any gigs!
I had the surgery in December 2021, and was playing again by late January. We recorded the final takes in April 2022, it actually worked well as I needed a break!
Wow! Were there any other unusual challenges along the way?
There have been all sorts of challenges with this one. Aside from the pandemic and the carpal tunnel, we had a some takes ruined because of the incredible storm that hit Sydney earlier this year. The rain was so loud that you could hear it in the tracks.
It has also been quite a journey to take with my partner, Julia. There is no escaping the project when it’s a collaboration with your spouse; it becomes very easy for the project to take over your entire life. Julia and I have been lucky — we’ve always had a similar idea about how this project should sound. We also have different skills, and learnt early on the best ways to divide up the roles to play to our strengths and avoid getting in each other’s way.
At the end of the day, who do you feel this album is for?
We didn’t set out to make an album for one specific group of people, it’s always been about making something that sounds terrific but is also quite fascinating. I think we hit those targets. I like to think that this is an album for anyone and everyone, it just sounds great.
The Golden Age Project from Nick Russoniello and The Golden Age Quartet is now released via Da Vinci Classics.
Images supplied. Credit Jacquie Manning.