Sam Newsome

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

11th International Critics Poll

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Top Ten (10) Prepared Saxophone Discoveries

Over the past year or so, I've made numerous prepared saxophone discoveries. The most fascinating has been the external-preparation, internal-manipulation hybrids that have allowed me to create even more unusual sonic concoctions.

Below are ten such discoveries. I can't remember exactly how many videos I've uploaded demonstrating these techniques, but these seem to be the ten that stick out most in my mind.

Enjoy! And more to come.

1. Double-Prepared Saxophone with Aluminum Foil and Plastic Tube Extension

2. Prepared Saxophone with Balloons 

3. Ostinato in 23/8 with Tube Extensions

4. Tube Extension with Plastic Water Bottle

5. SaxDrum - Soprano with Deflated Balloon on the Bell

6. Soprano with Groan Tube Noise Maker

7.  Soprano with Deflated Balloon on the Bell Played Like a Bata Drum

8. Soprano with Flugelhorn Bubble Mute and Plastic Tube Extension

9. Soprano with Three-Inch Tube Extension

10. Duo Concert with Sandy Ewen on Prepared Guitar @ Downtown Music Gallery

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Three (3) Tiers of Practicing

Often when I do masterclasses I’m asked by aspiring musicians questions about practicing, which is understandable. They figured I’ve gotten enough together to be invited to give a masterclass, then I MUST know what I doing—at least I’d like to think so. 

Practicing, as I explain, means different things depending on where you are in your level of development. In fact, I’ve identified the process as having three tiers.

Tier 1: Practicing to ACQUIRE knowledge and skill sets that enable you to improvise.

Tier 2: Practicing to PLAY great improvisations.

Tier 3: Practicing to GET OUT OF THE WAY OF great improvisations.

Tier 1 is what I refer to as the building blocks stage. This when you’re working out your scales and harmony, vocabulary building, as well as building a repertoire of tunes that will enable you to do a gig. Students at this sometimes sound mechanical and are often without an original approach. This is fine. I’ve often argued that this is where they should be. That stuff is part of the macro. Right now they should be focused on the micro.

Tier 2...this is what I call the practicum. The stage in which you’re taking all that you have an accumulated during Tier 1 and are now trying to weave it together into a comprehensible, perhaps personal form of expression. This is accomplished through both playing and practicing. In some ways, the former is more important than the later. Playing forces you assess in real time, giving you a clearer sense of your strengths and weaknesses, which will, in turn, give more focus to your individual practice. Players during this stage are starting to come into their own and are not just honing skills, but an improvisatory concept. You might say that they’re moving from the micro to the macro.

Tier, we’re assuming you’ve done your homework, and that all the ducks are in a row for Tiers 1 & 2. This level is more difficult to assess since your now trying to align yourself with the forces of nature rather than forcing your agenda. This level is more about openness, acceptance, and transcendence. It can be more about your state of mind that the state of your chops—not that the latter is not important.

How do you get there? Well, that is the $64,000 Question. The irony is that you get there by not worrying about how to get there. But by being ok with getting there and not getting there. It’s about being beyond getting there, and just being. 

The truth of the matter is that the lines between Tier 3, living a spiritually sound life, and getting in touch with the essence of your being become blurred. Sometimes they’re one and the same. 

My feeling is that when you do arrive, everyone will notice but you.

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!

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