Sam Newsome

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

Andrew Cyrille/Sam Newsome Duo

Children's Magical Garden (September 15, 2018)

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. 


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Awards and Accolades: They’re Only Half the Picture

Being musicians and artists, we often aspire to get awards and accolades under our belts. Whether it's getting a sizable grant, the Guggenheim fellowship, the NYFA fellowship, or the Pulitzer Prize, these kinds of awards are considered the highest of honors in the arts and entertainment--nothing to turn up our noses at. Being recognized, however, by these types of organizations will not act as a surrogate for what really matters: having your music or work become better and more impactful. Or better yet: Doing work that matters.

As creative people, how we’re perceived is not always based on past accomplishments, but on what we’re currently doing or might be doing in the future. Past accomplishments usually gain notoriety-equity only after we’re gone. A sad truth.

Regarding awards, I’ve known many musicians whose music actually became less interesting, or simply not as good, after receiving this type of establishment anointment. My theory is that before, they were hungry, but then they became full of themselves. 

This is one of the dangers of the ego and how it can become a barricade between us and where greatness lies. It’s one thing to create because you’re inspired, it’s another to create with concerns on how your creation will be perceived in comparison to previous work, especially if that work catapulted you to a higher level of fame and recognition. The latter tends to work more against you, than being a new starting place for greater things.

As I see it, receiving grants and awards are great things, for no other reason that they open up opportunities, enabling you to grow your audience, and at times grow your bank account. But at the end of the day, what you most want to be excited about is doing work that which makes you a better musician and more impactful as an artist. In other words, doing work that would be missed if you didn't show up to do it. No plaque, trophy, or paycheck could ever replace this.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Talking Shop with Soprano Saxophonist Jamison Williams

Have you ever wondered about the setups other saxophonists are playing on soprano? 

NOW you can find out!

During this installment, we’ll be talking shop with soprano saxophonist Jamison Williams. Jamison, who resides in Jacksonville, Florida, self-identifies as an experimentalist and an improviser. Not to mention that he thrives on pushing the envelope with regards to extended saxophone techniques, sound exploration,, and music programming.  Check out his [neu] Sonic Music Initiative. Jamison also has a fascination with reimagining the Disney Songbook through avant-garde lenses.

Knowing Jamison, and knowing that he is out there doing his thing, makes me very excited and optimistic about the future of the soprano saxophone and experimental music.

So I am extremely grateful that he was generous enough to take time from his busy schedule to talk shop.

Sam Newsome: Jamison, during our last interview, you stated that you play the Conn 18M soprano. Is this still the case? Being an older model, how does it compare to some of the newer horns available?

Jamison Williams: There are some tools you refuse to let go of, they’re an appendage, and they just seem to pronounce the exact syllables intrinsically appropriate for the story being told; this is the most ideal instrument needed to manifest every word to complete that creative sentence. It will be with me for life. 

                                                       Jamison's Conn18M Soprano Sax (Disassembled)

Having played Nonoko Yoshida’s soprano, it definitely gave me an eye-opener as to the more comfortable ergonomics developed by newer models, but compared to the 1865 Adolf Sax soprano I’d played at Saxquest, this ’27 New Wonder II feels practically futuristic. A very satisfying era, for me, in soprano saxophone manufacturing.  

SN: What was it like to play a soprano saxophone from 1865? I’m not even sure if it can be put into words.

JW: The Adolphe Sax soprano was a museum piece located at SaxQuest in St. Louis, played like an absolute charm; it had a double octave key, so in order to get a range above the high G, you would have to engage the second octave key. It played brilliantly, clean, open, no backpressure force, and was surprisingly light, much, much lighter than the Conn I’m playing now. Much lighter. The ergonomics were also spectacular, perfect grip. 

SN: When I first switched to the soprano, the Conn, which I imagine is similar to yours, was of one the sopranos I liked the best. What deterred me was not having access to the fourth octave. Was this ever an issue with you? Eventually, I think I could have figured it out, but I was too impatient at the time.

JW: That’s pretty high. There are colors and musical choices that are distinctly necessary for what’s being designed. That range, when used by me, is masked by auxiliary overtones when using multiphonics. Also, if they haven’t been produced as overtones, I probably haven’t sent them a birthday card either.

SN: Are still playing the Otto Link “Super Tone Master?” You seem to have a proclivity for vintage equipment.

                                           An Otto Link: Super Tone Master" Soprano Sax Mouthpiece

JW: That mouthpiece was given to me by a very well respected soprano player who was unable to attend a scheduled performance due to illness, who’s no longer with us; he asked for me to keep this exchange between us, so it is very special to me, and a private dedication at every performance. It will go with me to my grave.  

SN: What do you most like about it? And what’s one aspect of it that you dislike?

JW: There haven’t really been very many other pieces that I’ve played, this and an S80 and honestly the only ones I’ve ever put to my face; some things just fit, this seems to be the one that just makes the most sense.

SN: And how about reeds…Are you still playing the Vandoren #3? This used to be the brand of reeds I played before switching to the RW reeds.

                                                           Jamison's brand of reeds

JW: Vandoren 2.5 (classics) is the strength that now seems best for my lip, they seem to have a fresher sound compared to the stronger reed, even if by just a little bit. 

Extended techniques are my primary bag; having a reed that provides the support of hourly, heavy backpressure, as well as the flexibility to provide sustainable, clean overtones is absolutely essential. These are the performance spark plugs that power the machine.   

SN: I can certainly relate to this. Like you, being that extended techniques are at the core of what I do, I tend to go through reeds pretty quickly. Do you find this to be the case as well?

JW: Interestingly enough, I am pretty sensitive to the reeds, tapping them, controlled air pressure, and a proper balance, so they pretty much last me a good while; I’m still playing a reed from last year, with no chips, warping, or dullness. My teacher told to back in college to rotate them out, in a series of four, to keep a fresh reed always in hand. Instead, I play one until it’s dead, then move on. Love them, and they will love you in return.

SN: That’s pretty fascinating! The only time one of my reeds ever lasts a year is when they get lost between the cushions of the couch--something to think about.

And what type of ligature or ligatures do you use? As you know, ligatures have become almost as complicated as the mouthpieces. The newer ones are no longer metal contraptions with screws that you tighten to keep the reed from coming off. 

JW: Interestingly enough, having played a stock Otto lig, a basic Rovner, and a Francois Louis, I managed to Frankenstien one out of an old leather belt, and bound it with an old finishing washer. It’s absolutely perfect: the flexibility, resilience, resistance, tone, and grip. Perfection.

                                                 One of Jamison's homemade ligatures!

SN: It looks pretty cool. How long did it take you to make this? 

JW: Once you have the vision, it only takes a second, think this one took me five minutes maybe, probably less; just needed a good wrap that would provide ‘give’ (for flexibility and vibration), as well as endure an hour-long set without leaving me stranded. 

SN: And have you ever thought about selling them?

JWHa! Selling these things...hadn’t thought of it. Think I will just stick to playing a horn and continuing the growth of an ever-expanding library of published books.

SN: I can respect that. Having a narrow focus keeps you from getting derailed from what’s really important.

So what’s new on the horizon? Any noteworthy gigs/tours/recordings coming up? You always seem to have something in the works.

JW: Always on the move: tour throughout the South in July with a quartet including fellow saxophonist Jim Ivy, New York in August with Dave Miller and Austin White (to commemorate a trio release), solo Japan in January, and solo throughout Europe in February. 

In collaboration with artist MP Landis, January looks to be the inaugural month for an ongoing boxset series, ‘Interpretations from the Disney Songbook’, vol I-V; solo soprano saxophone, each extensively exploring key signature songs, themes fully expanded in duration, space, and development. The motifs have been mapped out in microscopic acuity. Releases will be made available in Portland, Maine in conjunction with an exhibition of the art cover, in full life-sized detail. Highly anticipating this event/release.

Currently continuing the ever-expanding ‘Interpretations from the Disney Songbook’. The previous edition was documenting specific graphic, shorthand notes and exercises (written in my words, for my personal understanding and development), intended for solo soprano, and closed out at over 1200 pages, this edition for ensemble is now amassing at over 800 pages of arrangements ‘for orchestra and soprano saxophone’; this allows for me the opportunity to write out everything in my saxophonic arsenal, with accompaniment, so the soloist is exclusively dedicated to extended thematic techniques. Me, with an organized backing band, per se.

                                               "Interpretations from the Disney Songbook"

SN: That’s quite an itinerary. I’ve always admired how you’ve been able to keep the flames going on so many fronts. Thanks again for taking the time to do this, and I look forward to hearing your new work.

JW: Absolutely! Thank you again, and appreciate you reaching out to me. Take care, and be safe.

Please check out this cutting edge performance of Jamison playing duo with one of my favorite percussionists, Tatsuya Nakatani.

To learn more about Jamison and his music, please visit

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thought of the day: Taking Risks

When I first switched to the soprano, I equated it to being like jumping off a cliff and growing wings on the way down. As artists, we can't afford to wait for safety nets. Being like no other is our safety net. The riskiest thing we can do in today's musical climate is to play it safe.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Thought of the day: Success Through Failure

The problem with many jazz improvisers is not that they don’t play enough great solos, it’s that they have not played enough bad solos. Failure is the surest path to success. Don't try to be perfect. Just try.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Thought of the day: The Status Quo

The status quo has only two rules: (1) keep things the same, and (2) keep those trying to change things out. Now that you know its rules, make up your own. Don't fit in. Lead. Don't conform. Convert. You can either fit in or stand out. Try to do both, you will fail at both.

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