Video: Saxophone Altissimo with Frank Catalano

The saxophone is a very vocal instrument. Just like my favorite singers, my favorite saxophone players have a lot of soul and swagger on top of their technique and chops.

Over the years, I have shared the stage or recorded with famous singers including Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Tony Bennett, Beyoncé, Betty Carter, John Legend, Curtis Mayfield, and Seal. I can tell you from firsthand experience that no matter the difference in style or voice, all of these singers are masters at using their voices to ramp up the energy.

The first time I heard Aretha Franklin jump an octave or two to belt over the horn section, I was blown away. Hitting higher notes is a great way to excite the audience, and the saxophone has a particularly magical way of doing it.

As a kid, the first time I heard Lenny Pickett screaming high saxophone notes at the end of Saturday Night Live really inspired me. Saxophone legend Dave Sanborn—belting out some high riffs on David Bowie's Young Americans album and in the band on Late Night with David Letterman—pushed me to master the altissimo range as a young saxophone player.

Dave Sanborn was kind enough to play as a guest artist on my most recent recording. Even though we we were recording jazz standards that aren't half as ripping as some of the rock and R&B examples above, the altissimo range was regularly part of our saxophone vocabulary on that album. All sax players should spend time practicing the altissimo range on the saxophone.

Hitting the High Notes

Alongside my explanation in this video, I have included a chart of my favorite altissimo fingerings in this article. I also discuss the altissimo at great length in my new book, Modern Saxophone Techniques. For this video, I chose to focus on the altissimo G and D, because those notes are harder to make speak or sound well at first. In fact, I get dozens of emails per week with questions about how to get those notes to sound as good as possible.

First, it’s important to remember that the altissimo range is based on the harmonic overtone series. It takes time to get these notes out. Trial and error is involved, since everyone's embouchure, mouth, breath support, and body shape is different.

Overtone Series

I recommend using the vowel shape in your throat similar to when you sing E. This throat shape keeps the air moving fast and focused. The A or Ah vowel shape in the throat works as well and some people prefer this to the E shape. The vowel shapes for I, O, and U vowel shapes rarely work well for altissimo notes since they don't move the air with as much speed and focus.

Now that we have discussed the throat shape, let’s make sure we have the right fingering. Remembering the fingering for G and D is easy, since it’s the same for both notes: the front F, the side B–flat, and the octave keys. The shared fingering seems nice at first, but you will quickly realize that it takes a lot of control to sound one desired note and not the other by mistake.

G and D Fingerings

Becoming familiar with the harmonic overtone series helps build embouchure control. The first interval in the series is an octave, the second interval in the series is a 5th. This makes sense, because the interval between G and D is a 5th.

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Exploring Altissimo

If you want to hear some examples of great saxophonists with altissimo chops, listen to Mike Brecker, Bob Berg, Eddie Harris, and James Moody.

For gear, I use a JodyJazz 7* DV mouthpiece, Rico Jazz Select 3S reeds, and a Yamaha Custom Z Tenor Sax. This setup works great throughout the sax’s entire range. If I was going to be doing a high energy gig with a lot of amplified instruments like guitars and Hammond B3, I might use a slightly stiffer reed that helps the high notes jump out a little easier. Be careful, though, because a reed that’s too stiff will sacrifice the tone and ease of the rest of the horn’s range, particularly the low notes.

Make sure to study the fingering chart for help with other altissimo notes. But most importantly, have fun.

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