Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

SN TRIO @ City of Asylum

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Groan Tube Soprano - Prepared Saxophone Explorations

My most recent prepared saxophone explorations is what I call "Groan Tube Soprano." This is a technique where I take the noisemaker (see Figures 1A - C) inside of the Groan Tube — a small cylinder-shaped device that produces a toy baby like sound when it moves up and down the tube—and place it inside of the soprano by dropping it into the bell. 

Of course, the entire Groan Tube cannot fit into my soprano, but the aforementioned noisemaker does fit quite snuggly.

Step 1: Aquire a Groan Tube!

                                                                                     Figure 1A

Step 2: Remove the noisemaker located inside the Groan Tube.

                                                                               Figure 1B:


Step 3: Drop the noisemaker into the bell of the soprano.

                                                                    Figure 1C:

One of the benefits of playing with this noisemaker piece inside my instrument is that I’m forced to explore a multitude of velocities through which I can move sound through my instrument. Playing the soprano the conventional way is not an option. However, blowing the airstream slowly, rapidly, jaggedly, inhaling, exhaling, slap tonguing, and flutter tonguing—they all seem to force the air stream to interact with the noisemaker in interesting and unpredictable ways. In addition, pressing the keys adds another layer of sound manipulation.

Joining me is Canadian-based soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine-Abbott--an important musical figure on Toronto’s improvised music scene. Together, I’m sure you’ll all agree we’re able to create a musical realm like no other.

* Below is a clip of flutist Stacy Russell demonstrating this technique with the flute body and foot joint.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Why Roy Hargrove was so Important to Jazz

Whenever one of our own is taken away from us, it’s always a sad occasion. However, when this happens while they’re still young and have a lot more music to give, it’s even more tragic. This is certainly the case with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who died on Friday, November 2, 2018, of a heart attack. He was only 49 years old. 

I first met Roy in the late 1980s at the after-hours session at the Blue Note Jazz Club. This was a common meeting ground for young musicians having just arrived in town. I was 23 at the time. And during this youth fascinated period of jazz history, I was approaching the age of being little use to anyone in the industry. This was a very different time. Roy, however, was on a very different trajectory. He was 18 at the time and still attending Berklee College of Music. By the time I heard him, his reputation had quickly preceded him. It was usually along the lines of “Aw man! You gotta hear this cat Roy from Texas.” And the fact that he was already signed, further fueled the excitement.

Roy came on the scene when there were few trumpet players like him. In many ways, he was counter-culture to the intellectual and virtuosic approaches popularized by trumpeters like Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and Wallace Roney—in that order. Roy brought something much simpler to the table. His approach emphasized the blues, swing, and a dash of R&B. He was coming from a much more organic place than the aforementioned. He was one of the few jazz young musicians at that time to play the blues scale unapologetically. It really struck a chord with the public—especially budding musicians his age and younger. He became the voice of a new generation. 

Unfortunately, his reputation of drug dependancy equally became the topic of discussion, alongside the new neo-soul sound he was honing with bandmates Antonio Hart, Geoffrey Keezer, Christian McBride, and Gregory Hutchinson. 

Most of us wake up to a daily fight with our demons. Some find healthy and positive resolves, others like Roy were not so lucky. 

I never got the opportunity to perform in any of his bands, but because of his love for playing and jamming with fellow musicians, we did share the bandstand numerous times in informal settings. It was nothing short of joyous listening not only to his love for the trumpet and jazz, but for life. Playing jazz might have been his occupation., but it was the sharing of his gifts with the world that became his life's mission. 

I’m sure Roy will always be looking down over us, trumpet in hand, a smile of his face, anxiously waiting to sit in. 

RIP. You’ll be missed.

Check out this clip below of Roy playing one of my favorite compositions of his, "Strasbourg St. Denis."

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Political Correctness: The Creative Artist's Kryptonite

Folks often ask me why I insist on pushing the envelope--especially with regards to the sonic realm of the soprano. My answer: Because I can. More accurately: Because I can without the fear of public backlash. 

As creators of instrumental music, we are immune to the kind of scrutiny that folks who work in mediums like television or print media have to deal with. Their careers can end with one racially charged tweet, an offensive YouTube video, or just saying something insensitive while the cameras are running. We’re living in an age where even stand-up comics are having to apologize for doing what people have always paid them to do: take us to an uncomfortable place, and then make us laugh. 

In our line of work, if people don’t like what we do, they just leave--or don’t bother showing up at all. I’d much rather this than having to apologize for being an artist.  

As musicians, particularly in the realm of experimental music, we can unapologetically go to the dark and uncomfortable places that people in most fields can't. I don't want to come off as one of these people who attach an over-inflated sense of importance to what they do. But we really are in a unique position. We are immune to the creative curse of political correctness. At this moment in time, that's saying a lot. Let's face it: PC-culture is kryptonite to creativity, thinking differently, and pushing the envelope. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, and many other great comedic minds would never be given a platform to thrive in this culture of not offending. Not without the social justice warriors trying to shut them down at every opportune moment. 

We have an amazing opportunity as artists--especially sound artists. For the next few decades, the world might look to us as being the ones who can offer a view unhampered by identity politics and fear of offending--sort of like it used to be. In fact, back in the early 1900s, the jazz culture was thirty years ahead of the rest of the nation as far as race relations and redefining what it meant to be an American, particularly a black American. Maybe that time has returned. We no longer have to follow the neo-conservative musical behaviors of the 1990s. Those gatekeepers who made us jump through hoops just to have an opportunity to play music, no longer exist. It's actually funny that many musicians are still propping these people up, and are begging to be picked by them, even though they have absolutely no relevance in this era of abundance. 

I'll say this: Thank goodness I’m not a writer, a radio talk-show host, a TV news commentator, a politician, or a stand-up comic, for that matter, but a creative artist working in the medium of sound. My career won’t end on one bad note. And if it does, that note will be sure to make history!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What's Wrong with the Word Jazz?

Many see the label "jazz" as some institutional relic no longer representing today’s improvising musician. To me, it symbolizes a rich and vibrant musical culture of which I’m proud to be a member. And I realize this is not for everybody.

Here’s what I think: The problem most folks have with the term “jazz” is that it doesn’t accurately reflect what they do. This I understand. Jazz is unique in that it underwent numerous transformations since it’s early 1900s inception. Consequently, the jazz of 1920s New Orleans sounds nothing like the Miles Davis electric jazz of the 1960s. The term simply does not provide us with much aesthetical clarity. This is very different from other idioms like blues and rock music. Blues, for example, except for moving from acoustic to electric instruments, and sometimes the implementation of background singers and horn sections has experienced few aesthetical overhauls. For this reason alone, referring oneself as a “blues artist” will spawn few philosophical debates. Jazz is a different story.

Bigger question: Is this reason enough to disassociate ourselves with the word altogether and just call ourselves Improvisers? I’m not convinced. Being classified as a "jazz artist" might not be an accurate depiction of what many of us do.  However, calling ourselves improvisers,  or folks who just “play music, is even more unclear. Not to mention ambiguous and non-committal. 

“Jazz artist” at least gives an understanding of the genesis of our music--provided it is rooted in the music's history. It may not describe exactly what one does, but at least it gives insight as to where the music comes from.

Envelope-pushing musicians like Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Braxton, may not prefer the J-word, but I feel it more accurately describes what they do than "composer" and "improviser."  And I'm speaking more of their small group work. European players like Evan Parker, John Butcher, and John Surman don’t display the same obvious ties to jazz’s African American history, especially to the blues. So improviser might be better suited for them. They are more avant-gardists. However, Mitchell, Threadgill, Braxton, fall more in the realm of what guitarist Bern Nix refers to as “avant-traditionalists."

Which raises another point: you don’t always have to fit in.

Let’s say you have a group of musicians playing on stage together improvising. They might have common goals as far as desired performance outcomes, but they’re not coming from the same place. You can have Peter Brötzmann and David Murray playing together, but their musical and cultural genesis will lead you down two different paths. If you asked Murray what he’s working on, you would not be surprised if he said “Lush Life.” I’m not sure if the same can be said about Brötzmann. Not to name one as better than the other. Only the musical DNA is different. 

At the end of the day, you might say I’m a subscriber to what George Lewis refers to as the “one-drop" rule of jazz--something he discusses in his book A Power Stronger Than Itself. Lewis speaks of it as something negative--a way to box African American composers into a cultural and aesthetical corner.  I totally get it. For the record, I would never tell anyone how to self-identify. That right is one of our sanctities as belonging to an evolving human race. But as Popeye used to say: “I am what I am.” And proud of it!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Is Piracy a 1990s Kind of Worry?

Many musicians and industry folks alike feel piracy is our biggest worry.  I'm here to beg to differ.

In this era of musical abundance,  obscurity should be our biggest concern. Seeing how consumers have access to as much music as their precious little ears can consume, we should be honored that someone would want to steal something we've created. It means that we have somehow figured out how to cut through the clutter. According to an article in Time Health, the average internet user has the attention span of a goldfish, which amounts to eight staggering seconds!

Not only is piracy improbable,  but getting folks to know and care that we exist after discovering us, is equally difficult. 

If this sounds harsh, consider what we have to compete with:

- According to an article in Tubular Insights, 500 hours of YouTube video are uploaded, not every day, or every hour, but every minute. And this was back in 2015.

- In an article in Internet Live Stats, 6,000 tweets are tweeted on Twitter every second.

- And in an article in GeekWire, 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram daily.

Get the point?

Looking at these stats, worrying about someone even noticing our music seems overly optimistic--never mind, actually taking the time to figure out how to steal it. I’m not saying that it can’t happen. It happens all the time, especially with sampling. But in all honesty, how often does a big name rapper illegally sample our music, making millions, while giving us nothing? Rarely. And if they do, what is the likelihood that they would get away with it?

So you get my point. Casing the room for folks making audio and video recordings of our performances is counter-productive. I used to play with a bass player who would stop playing if he saw someone recording--even if it wasn't his gig. Needless to say I don’t use him anymore. In this age of abundance, we should be thankful that someone is willing to record our performances and share it with their friends and followers on social media. Some might see it as stealing; some might see it as exploitation. I see it as free publicity. That person and their Samsung might give exposure to a few thousand folks that ordinarily I would not have reached.

If someone illegally records your music and makes a commercial recording of it, or steals your tune and claim it as their own, that’s a different story. Again. How often does this really happen?

Look. I know we want to protect our precious tunes and performances of them. But trust me when I say that most stuff written and performed is not even exploitable by the musicians who’ve created it. Never mind a couple of drunken millennials with smartphones. Not to say a lot of music is not good. Just the opposite. This is one of the most creatively fertile periods I’ve experienced in my lifetime. But being good and being exploitable for commercial gain are two different conversations. 

Let me say this. Yes, copyright your music. Make sure your publishing is in order. But when you encounter folks out here doing free publicity for you, don’t fight them, embrace them. Hell, maybe even thank them. Realistically, most of the people exposed to our work on social media will give us eight seconds of their precious time, at best, before moving on to the next tweet, Instagram post, Facebook post, Snapchat post, or controversial YouTuber-of-the-month. I don’t know about you? But I’ll take it. Every little bit helps.

In this era of musical abundance, our only recourse is generosity and sharing, not selfishness, suspicion,  and hoarding. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Remembering Hamiet Bluiett: Big Horn, Big Heart

I first met Hamiet Bluiett back in 1989, when I first moved to New York. I was fresh out of Berklee and green as the cucumber fields of Fruitland, Maryland. Back then I counted on friends and colleagues who had already moved to New York a year or two earlier to be buffers between folks and me I wanted to work with. 

On this particular day, I was hanging with guitarist Mark Whitfield, who had left Berklee a year or two earlier to play with a renowned R&B band. After we had finished playing a jam session, Mark told me that he was playing that night with this baritone saxophonist named Hamiet Bluiett, whom I had never heard of, at a spot in Greenwich Village, and that I should bring my horn--at the time would have been my vintage Mark VI tenor saxophone Back then, showing up at other people’s gigs with your instrument was how you found work. It was an informal type of audition and casting call that was never-ending. Much to my surprise, it was one of Hamiet’s large ensembles, that at the time featured Troy Davis on drums, Reginald Veal on trombone (not bass), Steve Wilson on saxophone, Bruce "Bud" Revels on saxophone and clarinet, James Genus on bass, and many others whose names are escaping me. 

The music was very eclectic, a mixture of written parts, musical cues, and free improvisation. What you’d expect from Hamiet Bluiett. In fact, this was my introduction to free improvisation. Coming straight out of the conservatory setting, I was used to following a musical map telling me the tempo, the meter, what chord changes to play on, and how many choruses to play. What Hamiet introduced me to that night was how to follow a musical compass—learning to listen to my musical instincts and not just regurgitate pre-rehearsed vocabularies. 

Long story short, I sat in and did my little thing and everyone seemed to dig it, especially Hamiet. 

Here’s the funny part.

After the first set, Hamiet, looking a little perturbed, asked the band to convene upstairs for a band meeting—including me, even though I had only played on one or two pieces.
All of the band huddled around Hamiet in this very small and cramped green room. We were all sitting, while he stood, occasionally prancing from left to right, as he began tearing the band a new one!

His tirade went something like this: “What the hell are you guys doing out there?! What the HELL are you doing?! Why the hell are you trying to swing? If you want to swing, go play with Miles Davis or Jimmy McGriff, or one of those motherfuckers! Don’t bring that shit to my bandstand. If I play in C, don’t you play in C. Play in B or Db. If I play in 4/4, don’t you play in 4/4. Do something different. Use your imaginations.”

And much to my surprise, he pointed at me and said, “Now this man. He’s going in the same direction as me.” To say that I felt more uncomfortable than flattered would be a gross understatement. During those days I was very much influenced by 1960s John Coltrane and Joe Henderson. So playing in that freer,  experimental setting felt very scary, yet, liberating—something I only learned to appreciate years later.

That night made a significant impact on me. Going to Berklee taught me to be a musician, that night with Hamiet taught me what it’s like to be an artist. A path I’m proud to say that I’m still pursuing passionately.

Mr. Bluiett’s music and generosity of spirit will be missed. He formally and informally mentored many young musicians who had the good fortune of crossing his path. Brooklyn, Illinois, would be proud to know that one of their own represented them well. He left the world in a much better place--an endeavor to which most can only aspire.  R.I.P.

Check out this 2010 performance of Hamiet playing at "Giant Steps" at a rehearsal for the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival. Recorded February 4, 2010.

This trio features the Kahil El'Zabar Ritual Trio

Kahil El'Zabar -- drums

Hamiet Bluiett -- baritone saxophone

Junius Paul -- contrabass

I really like the way Hamiet opens up this tune. Not an easy task. As most know who've played it, it's difficult not to fall into a patternistic approach when playing this tune. Hamiet's performance is devoid of all cliches. 


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