Soprano Planet: Joe Giardullo’s epiphany

Joe Giardullo working on a soprano mouthpiece. (photo by Ben Giardullo)

Joe Giardullo working on a soprano mouthpiece. (photo by Ben Giardullo)

Free-Jazz horn player Joe Giardullo has played with Anthony Braxton, Joe McPhee, Bill Dixon, Milford Graves and lots of others. And been around the world playing in venues large and small — the Pompidou Center in Paris, clubs in Poland, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Southern France — lots of them in solo concerts on his ever-present soprano saxophone. He even got a four-star review in Downbeat for his seminal Free-Jazz album “Gravity” and had the honor of an invitation to play on one of Soprano legend Steve Lacy’s final gigs (he passed away six months later) in Montreal. Giardullo is a “monster” player: alto and tenor sax, bass clarinet, flute, even a little stand-up bass and piano over the years. So what is this life-long horn player doing here in the basement of his home in Cottekill sanding a black ebonite mouthpiece and checking it under his overhead magnifier?

“Family reasons took me off the road,” says Giardullo. “Things were non-musical in the house then…I wasn’t playing, so since I had been playing mostly sopranos the last few years, I figured I’d try making a mouthpiece for one of my horns.”

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Giardullo has had 35 of them through the years and he’d run through a lot of mouthpieces for his various sopranos before he got a good one. “With mouthpieces and dealing with the people who make them, it’s always the fussy, small variations that make big changes in the way one plays. There was always something about the regular mouthpieces that just wasn’t right. Just before playing with Lacy, I was starting to hear things differently, trying out all different sopranos and mouthpieces. I found a horn, but the mouthpiece wasn’t what I wanted. So I traded horns and mouthpieces with Lacy. Used his horn — and nobody sounded like Lacy — played it and was completely blown away. That’s when I decided to try my hand at it.”

Giardullo worked slowly calibrating his mouthpiece for the soprano, filing, balancing, “and when I finished the first one, it was a killer piece…I was completely shocked. The difference was incredible.”

He then started on a second mouthpiece for another soprano. “I figured the first one was just dumb luck, but I discovered that I loved working on it. Five hours felt like 40 minutes.” It was another killer piece. So he started making a third for another soprano “and I’m starting to think that maybe players out there might be interested.”

He put the third one up for sale and made a few hundred dollars on it. From that initial foray into making and modifying soprano mouthpieces came Soprano Planet. “The business is off the charts. I’ve made over 1,000 mouthpieces in five years,” says Giardullo. “The internet made it possible. A rep as a player in the US and Europe helped, because eventually people found me.”