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



Sunday, November 16, 2014

An Interview with Soprano Saxophonist Stefano Scippa



The following interview with Italian soprano saxophonist Stefano Scippa was conducted several months ago. During this very telling conversation he enlightens us with insights learned from private lessons with Steve Lacy,  playing jazz in Bologna, and of course, the fascinating story behind his compelling solo saxophone CD, Immaculate Breakfast.

From his liner notes for his solo saxophone recording Immaculate Breakfast

In recent times after many years of intense activity, I felt the need to retire from music for a while, having lost interest due to the general lack of ideas and creativity on the scene. Not being able to find any pleasure in the practice of music, I considered the eventuality to quit altogether. So, with the exception of few isolated appearances, I decided to limit my playing to single weekly sessions just to keep physical contact with the saxophone. All this took place in a very special space: the chapel of the former mental institution Roncati in Bologna. There, nestled in a sort of retreat, the ancient hall halo became an instrument itself, in the form of reverberating waves produced by the same horn that had lost any appeal to me. The rise of vibrant, unearthly sound returned to me the original meaning of music I experienced many years ago. This time committed to such a lonely search showed me a direction that brought my style to maturity and a certain formal completion and these recordings are the outcome of two years hard work.

SN: Before we address what you wrote in your liner notes, I’d like to catch my readers up to speed on who you are what you’ve been up to these last several years. So when did you decide to make the soprano saxophone your main instrument?

SS: I started playing the clarinet when I was about twenty and attended the faculty of psychology. I was self-taught and only later on I enrolled and graduated at the conservatory, but then I was already a formed musician. I've always played music along with my profession as psychologist, with dedication and commitment. In addition, this passion has converged in further activities as art and music therapist

I played in many projects and combos: mostly acoustic and small sized, with the exception of a couple big bands. The projects range from mainstream jazz to traditional inspired ensembles, from free improvisation to early sacred music, not to mention some classical music. Another part of my output is into film music, television and contemporary theater. The element that remains constant in all these different types is a component of improvisation.

The soprano sax impressed me at first for its tense and modern sound. I thought it was representative of our time. Its liquid quality makes one think of molten metal. The horn design itself has an appeal: the intricacy and the sparkles, the mysterious keywork. So by the mid 90's I decided to add it to the clarinet, which I was playing thinking of a tenor sax. At some point I began to perceive the clarinet sound as limited and outdated, so I gradually switched to soprano until the transition was definitive.

Ultimately I did the same route of Sidney Bechet. Today, I think of the soprano like a trumpet and that's funny because I always played one instrument thinking of another.  But I think it’s necessary. If you play the same instrument for so long you need to invent something to get the rid of boredom!

SN: Were there any players that influenced your decision to play the soprano? Or were you solely influenced by your own connection to the instrument?

SS: In my case it was an individual choice, determined by the tendency to seek perfection in one single discipline. The instrument just happened to be the means to this vocation. Before that, I've been involved in extreme sports like BMX, rock climbing and scuba diving. All my life I've been deeply involved in some particular activity that tests my limits. And then when I touched it or felt the need for a change, I moved away to something new, another adventure

Regarding the soprano, there were also external influences. I came in contact with the horn when I saw some experienced colleagues in their concerts: the soprano had such an incisive sound, at the same time was close to the human voice. The speed of execution and the chromatic phrasing were among other elements that struck me. But it was when I heard Coltrane on My Favorite Things that I experienced a real epiphany! That was the decisive moment in which I resolved to take on soprano. I must have heard that song a thousand times?

Then I discovered the music of Lacy. He came often to Italy so it was easy to see and hear him play. I realized Trane made wonderful use of soprano, but Lacy’s uses of the soprano were infinite! I think Lacy exploited the fact of being limited by the instrument to liberate his imagination. But it was only when I had the opportunity to study with him that I really understood the logic behind his language. One day he played in front of me an unaccompanied chorus of Let's Call This to show how you can solo on it. In that moment, I realized his concept and all that I had heard before up to that day! It's amazing how decisive a single encounter can be

Lacy was also obsessed by sound. But on that subject I wasn't unprepared, since my first teacher, Oreste Sabadin, had instilled in me the same care for the sound. And he's definitely my first and fundamental reference point. Thank you, Oreste!

SN: You said that Lacy visited Italy a lot and you had numerous opportunities to hear him play. Was there any particular concert that stood out? Also, did you get a chance to sit down with him and talk about music and the soprano?

SS: I heard Steve live for the first time in 1994, in Padua, where he was studying. The trio with Irene Aebi and Frederic Rzewki on piano, presented Packet, a program of songs built around the poems of Judith Malina. A that time I had heard only Lacy's classics like Soprano Sax and Evidence. I wasn't not yet mature enough for that kind of music, but some fragments impression. But some years later I happened to get Packet CD and really enjoyed the music. Both lyrics and music are beautiful, the contribution of Rzewsi helps to project jazz language into a chamber music setting without forcing. I consider Packet Irene Aebi's best work, since her vocal qualities find their natural place. To this day it remains one of my favorite Steve's albums. The saxophone opening projected into the piano chassis has such a profound and evocative power that breaks the acoustic limits of the instrument.

Later in '98 I came to know that Steve was coming to Bologna for a masterclass. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet him, so I couldn't miss the chance. Steve nice and english demaneored, he really made me felt at ease. In the class many exercises consisted in the collective delivering of themes or group improvisations. There must have been at least a dozen saxophonists, and more than a half were soprano players. I placed a small analog tape recorder next to me, but when I went home and I listened back to the tapes I realized the sound was saturated and distorted. It was almost impossible to tell a single instrument out of the crowd, with one exception: Steve's sound was always there, distinct and clear, with the same features that you can listen to all his records! It was the biggest lesson that I received on sound, and without a word! I realized that Steve had probably found a way to take advantage of some particular frequencies different than those of all the others, and that these allowed him to emerge. Its uniqueness was thus revealed. The following day Steve explained to me and Gianni Mimmo how to deliver harmonics. I remember the three of us having troubles to play the fourth harmonic out of the middle C sharp. What a joy when I was the first to succeed. Steve congratulated me and he signed a nice dedication on a photo: "Good luck with the horn" Horray! 

SN: Is there much of a jazz scene in Bologna? There seems to be a lot of wonderful jazz musicians coming out of Italy.

SS: The city of Bologna and Italy in general, have always been a major landing point for the world of jazz, and the best musicians are regularly invited. By doing so, Italy itself has produced first class musicians. Today, however, the prevailing logic is that of small groups who care only for their interests rather than being supportive one to each others. In Bologna,  only a few venues survive and it's very difficult to play. A few festivals are accessible only to the big names.

The same is true for the theaters and the media that are controlled by institutions with strong political connotations. The result is a general lack of creativity and stagnation. The remaining chance for the independents is to take the burden of organization the financial risk. Personally, I’ve produced many events, like the Eaunaturelle Festival. Even doing so the institutions run by politicians tend to ignore the private to stop him in the long run.

Being that Italy the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is necessary that artists collectively exceed their personal limits and work together to overcome this  system. In these days I see a lot of musicians, even professionals, who are returning to play in the street to make ends meet. Who knows? Maybe this will do good to them and their music!


SN: Can you talk a bit more about the Eaunaturelle Festival?

SS: I decided to organize a festival of avant-garde music ( regardless of genres ) in 2006 and 2007, with many spinoffs during the year. It's hard to be part of small circles of musicians so I decided to do a festival of my own. Back from a trip from Berlin I had so much energy I felt confident enough I could do whatever I wanted for at least two years, and so it was. The festival was an independent success, I invited several guests from abroad and let them play with local artists. On that occasion I invited Joe Giardullo with whom I also made an soprano duet. My goal was to create a bridge between musicians and hopefully let them understand that joining they could be stronger and realize their projects. Unfortunately I failed this goal: at the end of the festival everyone returned home and resumed their individualistic attitude, with a few exceptions. I realized that most of the musicians have this kind of mentality and I could not do nothing except become a full-time organizer and fund them. Anyway, I became aware that I was able to create and manage a festival in all its aspects, from the programming of websites to fund raising and logistic. Everything went smoothly and there were no major issues. I do not exclude to repeat similar experiences in the future.

SN: Can elaborate on what you mean when you said that politicians in Italy run cultural institutions?

SS: I remained vague on this point not assume a polemical tone. But since you ask me I will explain. In Italy, if you have the chance to finance and organize your own events you can go forward on your own and overcome many bureaucratic obstacles. If you succeed then you eventually present your works to institutions but probably be ignored. Cultural institutions are controlled by politicians and prefer to finance associations led by militants of political parties. In this way public funding, which should be donated to the citizens, they become a mean of exchange to get votes. In this system the independents do not have space and oxygen, they can rely just on themselves and in long period they loose stamina. For example: Although the Eaunaturelle festival was an international event articulated in three cities the some press ignored it because I had no political support. Currently in Italy if a citizen writes a letter to a councilor to present a project in many cases does not even get a response. The distance between citizens and institutions is enormous. The only way to go is to be associated to politically deployed groups or be independent and self-finance, but you know well how difficult it is for musicians to assume that responsibility.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             SN: In your liner notes you said that you “felt a need to retire.” Was there any one particular thing that happened, or was it just that overall desire to play music had disappeared?

SS: It was a personal matter, but the story of an individual is also set in a general context which is what I just described above. The personal aspect relates to a declining interest in music and the instrument itself. For most of my life, music has been the inner spring of creative energies. As result of a period of professional activity, the wells were drained and the inspiration dried up. The sound of saxophone left me cold and the horn itself, turned upside down, looked like an Art-deco flower pot. I was saturated.

The thrill was gone and the music that was once a source of regeneration was now a hollow room. I decided to take a long break. A colleague advised me to have fun and do things other than music but encouraged me to keep a physical contact with the instrument, just by touching it from time to time. So I took his advice.

I'm not afraid to say I felt good without music, but I was aware it would have been a waste to throw it all away. I made up my mind to play once a week in the chapel of what once was the former mental asylum. I got into the habit of recording weekly sessions, and over time I realized they had a poetic beauty of their own. I found motivation and decided to set up a program to produce my first solo album.  

SN: Is it safe to say that Immaculate Breakfast was not just about making music, it was also a form of therapy.

SS: The place that gave birth to Immaculate Breakfast had a life of his own. The chapel reverberation mirrored the sounds back to me like an orchestra. In the hall that was once a church I could recollect my musical origins. I was surprised they were the same simple ideas I had in the theater days, so I just included in more advanced structures.  It was truly a form of self-therapy and regeneration.

At the end I was so happy that I decided to issue it with my label Contains Beauty. The last piece, the title track Immaculate Breakfast is the core of my musical concept packed in a few minutes. Incidentally this piece was the first to be recorded as a casual improvisation to test a new horn. In a way I consider it my poetic synthesis. 

Immaculate Breakfast is also an idea, a container functional for different type of performances, like theater. In a way it's a method to take care and feed yourself with the purest elements to survive artistically. When I work as an art or music therapist, I aim toward specific therapeutic goals. Similarly when I play music I need to do things I acknowledge as true.

In the era of technology Immaculate Breakfast is also a way to present the human being in front of an audience: naked, armed only with an old instrument and few ideas. Even if it may seem obvious we have to confront the real challenge - which is even more urgent in music. Is still the real human being to prefer over tech devices?  

SN: How did you become interested in improvised music and more importantly, playing solo?

SS: I became involved in improvised music for simple reasons. As everyone else I was deeply impressed by certain recordings, then I had friends who were playing jazz and that was certainly an influence. Improvisation is a softer and more funny approach than academic music. In improvised music the individual has room to express his personality. As you improve you soon realize that excellence is no less demanding than in classical music. The artist evolution is a process: you add some elements and take away others, then eventually come out with your unique mix. After all the search for the artistic self and your own voice is not very much different than life, where you have to find your place.

About solo performance I think that in the end we play solo for most part of our life. So the difference is when you decide to do it in public. When you're young a narcissistic component is a necessary part of the game, but later on when you are mature, it's substituted by need to pass your experience over to others as a form of altruism. It's the alchemical process of an individual who proceed form a starting point of egotism - the need to take - which is what permits the baby to survive - to a position of extroversion - the desire to give the best part of you . Which is a form of love.

Of course playing soprano solo it may also result out of the desire to confront yourself with a tradition ( Braxton, Lacy, etc. ). Sometimes it happens simply because you can't find the right partners to express a certain ideas. It's clear soprano today has a consistent solo tradition and it's common practice for dedicated soprano players do at least one solo recording. Sometimes I think that soprano could become the contemporary violin among winds.  

SS: I’m familiar with your CD, Immaculate Breakfast, obviously, but are there other solo recordings that you’ve done that you would recommend? 

SS: Immaculate Breakfast is my latest and only solo record so far. Before that I produced very different type of albums because I do not like repeat myself, but I play exclusively soprano saxophone on all those records. Albums focus on different genres.

One of my favorite is Rebirth Of Divine, a trio with Arabian oud and cello. The project is based on early sacred music and Gregorian chants. Early European music is a founding value to me, more or less like Afro-Americans would instinctively recognize the blues and spirituals. I also played some solo in that record, something I perfected later. 

Caffè Luce is the reduction of the traditional Italian band to a quartet including accordeon. The repertoire is made up of folk songs and original compositions. Another project issued under the title Eaunaturelle was the outcome of the collaboration with american cellist Tristan Honsinger - possibly the father of improvised cello. The music is organized into open structures and intuitive music strategies. An important stage of my life, Tristan taught me that there's no difference between life and music as the latter reflects the other. It was the most extreme form of musical freedom I experienced, but not easy to practice as someone would think.

As a sideman there are also some straightahead jazz recordings, some of which were reviewed positively in the States. That was a unexpected surprise!’’ 

SN: Are there links where we can buy Rebirth Of Divine and Caffè Luce?  

SS: My distributor is Cdbaby. My records are also available on iTunes.

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/stefanoscippacaffeluce 

SN: What do you find to be the most intriguing thing about playing solo? And feel free to expound on any challenges that you have faced, too.

SS: For me, today the challenge is to tell a story structured in different episodes – eg. the tunes - and set it into a musical frame as a theatrical metaphor. In order to have a certain authority you must already have developed your own unique sound. You can use that sonic blueprint to glue different genres of music. That's something you would not normally do in a quartet, where the repertoire is more singlely oriented. But playing solo allows you some kind of freedom.

By the way, you also need to add variety. You balance space and density, silence and sound, use different colors and dynamics, choose between several moods and tempos. You distribute all these elements to characterize each tune differently. In the end this is what do in any kind of successful performance. All you have is a certain amount of time and you fill it with selected actions. Some are repetitive and necessary, others are at your discretion. The same is true of life, you can expand reality drawing from your imagination, you can create something that didn't exist before. For the aspiring artist it's a form of intellectual honesty at least to try and not just keep repeating what others already did. That's what art is all about.

By the way, being an Italian, I believe the feature that most distinguishes us from others is melody, if you think, for instance, of the opera. So I choose selected melodies or melodic modules and use them in my performances as narrative anchors. 

SN: I’m going to change the topic slightly and talk shop. What kind of set-up do you play on?

SS: On soprano, slight changes are radical. Yet after many years it surprises me how my sound stay more or less the same with any kind setup. So, if I wish to alter the color it's mostly about nuances and inflections. That has a lot to do with the throat position.

I play a silver plated Selmer MK6. I always had a preference for silver horns over lacquered. I think silver have a deeper sound and better projection. With time the sound center grows bigger and darker, at least in my case. For the mouthpiece, after many years of rubber, I passed to wood because I feel it combines the qualities of ebonite and metal with a plus: it's a living material. I'm currently using a superb Sopranolanet 8* wood mouthpiece that Joe Giardullo custom made for me. I play different reeds depending on the music or the acoustic: Vandoren Traditional # 2 for classical, Alxander DC #3 and Marca Traditional #3 for other genres. I use a Winslow ligature for a wide dark sound and Oleg for a more brilliant one.

One of the features I like most is that breath sound, that ffft... that sometimes occurs shortly before the attack of the note. Most times is random, an unwanted noise. On the contrary I try to include it as much as possible in my playing. For this reason I was once banished - I must admit correctly - by the director of a contemporary music ensemble. Today I'd certainly make the director happy with the proper attack, but at that time it was more important to protect that forming ffft... rather than playing a classical setup and stay in the orchestra!

Anyway, I believe the reed is the most important element above all others. Sometimes we discard a mouthpiece or we say the acoustic is bad. But actually it's the reed that is unfitting. I made this discovery some years ago and I'll never forget it. I was tired of my piece and I casually happened to try a new brand of reed, the sound doubled and the effort halved! Isn't it for this that the instruments we play are named reeds? 

SN: Being someone who focuses on the soprano, do you find that you think or play differently than when you’re playing one of the other saxes?

SS: I do not come from other saxophones like many do, I consider myself a pure sopranoist. I seldom play other horns, it's something I do when I need a really different color, just like a painter would do. On the other hand you can treat your instrument as something different. That may prove necessary if you have an exclusive relationship with soprano, the tyrant par excellence.

I find that alto and tenor are generally easier to play and articulate but I have to adjust the air column, the air speed is slower and I can easily find myself playing overtones! I can make a correct comparison with the clarinet. The clarinet has a more imaginative phrasing for the upper register is a twelfth apart and you got more notes in the bottom. It's something I miss on soprano but the clarinet sound has a stronger connotation and I think on sop you have more choice to develop a personal sound. I will explain this.

When I was at the conservatory I made up to discuss my graduation playing solely soprano, a risky choice! As part of the discussion I wanted to give evidence that the limitations of the soprano were mistaken. I prepared to play all three the horn solos of Flamenco Sketches along with the original recording, in the same texture of the original instruments and trying to imitate their peculiar sound. With the exception of a few note of the alto and some scale runs of the tenor I accomplished that goal and I'm very proud of that! Someday I will put online the adapted charts for soprano geeks.

The horn gas certain restrictions but contains other elements you can master. Let's extend this idea to the musical transposition of life: you can easily imitate a flute, a crying baby or a lonely dog barking at the moon. But how would you represent a shooting star? That's has more to do with poetic skills and that is what I'm about!

SN: Are there any future recordings or projects that we can look forward to from Stefano Scippa?

SS: My the next record will be Domani. I'd like to play the material with different combos and sounds. There are original contemporary compositions, traditionals and some very ancient music dating back to the fourth century B.C.! I will also include some solo version of the baroque repertoire never recorded on soprano.

Soon I'll release Satori At Fall, a collections of jazz tunes played in a very free way by a piano less trio. When available the album can be downloaded for free at the website www.containsbeauty.com for promotional purpose. There are other things I'd like to do.

I dream of a small contemporary sacred music ensemble, an evolution of Rebirth Of Divine. While Immaculate Breakfast, has already became a theater play commissioned by the Winds & Bits festival in Rieti. A solo performance in which I play the role of the narrator and musician, inspired by the figure of the early bards, the wandering storytellers of Greece who sang their epics, accompained only by their instrument.  I consider theater the most complete and elder art form , since it includes all others artistic disciplines including music. Life itself is the most direct source of theatrical representation.

SN: Thanks for your time. And thanks for your insightful thoughts.




Saturday, November 1, 2014

An Amazon Kindle Essay

During the making of my new CD, I contemplated many thoughts about race, liberation, and African culture. So much so, that I felt compelled to write them down daily, which, consequently, served as sources of inspiration throughout this creative process. And all of these things came together in this new e-book: The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation.

Inside this e-book you'll find:
  • My essay on liberation and the importance of following an African continuity
  • Liner notes by Charles D. Carson, Ph.D
  • An interview with Francisco Mora Catlett
  • A featured track from the CD: The Snake Charmer of Tangier
So check out the e-book


Thursday, October 9, 2014

What’s the Deal with “Interview Music?”

 














In an article titled JazzTimes.com Exclusive: A Conversation with Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis with Jeff Tamarkin, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Branford Marsalis discussed a wide-range of topics ranging from the problems with jazz education, the importance of learning jazz history, and lessons learned from some of the jazz masters. At one point Terence Blanchard begins talking about the term interview music, which is the focus of this piece. This is what Blanchard had to say:

Along the same lines, there’s a thing we used to call interview music. You know what interview music is? That’s the music that sounds better when motherfuckers are talking about it than when they’re playing it. [Both laugh]

[Then Branford Marsalis chimes in with]: I call that think tank music. When you hear them talk about it, you go, “God damn, I can’t wait to hear that shit. But then…”

Before I address their comments, let me first say that the term interview music is something I’ve been hearing for sometime, first from the late pianist Mulgrew Miller and then from pianist Donald Brown. In a 2005 Downbeat interview with Ted Panken, this is what Miller had to say about interview music:

A lot of people do what a friend of mine calls "interview music," [Miller said]. You do something that's obviously different, and you get the interviews and a certain amount of attention.

Here's my take on  “interview music.”

As stated in the aforementioned examples, the term is used in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways to put down musicians with eclectic and often times non-traditional musical taste. The musicians usually at the receiving end of this criticism are younger musicians and are often accused of not having any musical connection to the history of jazz as well as having little knowledge of it. And to add insult to injury, these “un-informed musical charlatans” invent these weird and crazy concepts that the press finds interesting to the point that they want to interview them; hence the term interview music.


In discussing this topic, I feel a little like a double agent, since I have been on both sides of this aesthetical fence. On numerous occasions, I’ve taken the zero tolerance positions of Blanchard and Marsalis, where I would quickly dismiss music or musical concepts that sounded devoid of any connection to the music’s history and (black) culture from which it comes. Let's face it, when you’re trying to swing, you tend to have very little patience for musicians who are not--and even less patience for those musicians who have absolutely no interest in trying. It’s like when you have a certain perception of what it means to dress for a gig. If what you perceive as gig-appropriate attire is a nice suit, a necktie and freshly shined shoes, then you are going to have little patience for that person in torn jeans, a wrinkled T-shirt, and dingy sneakers. You’ll even give the person who has on a tacky suit, a tie, and worn out shoes, the benefit of the doubt--since they are at least making an effort, as far as you can see.

I’ve also been on the side of those people that Blanchard and Marsalis are making fun. I’ve very proudly played music that some might consider to be “music that sounds better when motherfuckers are talking about it” or “think tank music.” I’m sure there have been numerous giggles behind my back about some of my solo projects. And I’ll take those shots to the chin. It comes with the territory when you think outside the box. Or when you go against the grain for what it acceptable as "hip."

I attribute some of my unique perspective to having applied for a lot of grants, back when I had the time. When writing grants, there is natural tendency to think about music in more conceptual terms than musical ones. After all, it’s more about selling the idea. It’s comparable to working at an advertising firm, where you have to sell the client on the concept long before anything has actually been created. I must say, it’s a very liberating and fun way of thinking about music. Thinking in this way teaches us how to conceptualize a musical vision. And part of having a musical vision is being able to see what’s not there; being able to see what others can’t. Otherwise, the only other option is dealing with music in a very classical way—which means that you take tried and tested methods and try to master them. I do understand the joy and skill sets that can be received from this approach. At a certain period in my former life, this was all that I knew.

One way I feel that both worlds can better understand each other is by understanding that musicians basically fall into two categories with regards to how they approach their music. You have the experimental thinker and the conceptual thinker.

Experimental thinkers tend to work on a musical concept or with a band over an extended period
of time, constantly reworking and perfecting it. Whereas, the conceptual thinker tends to be more project oriented (or interview music oriented), and often brings an idea to fruition very quickly, and typically moves on once the idea is realized.

Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Dave Douglas represent these two types perfectly-- Marsalis being the experimental thinker, and Douglas being the conceptual thinker.

Marsalis, with a brief excursion with his group Buckshot le Funk and his trio recordings, has been honing the same band concept for over 20 years. In fact, even when his pianist Kenny Kirkland tragically died, he replaced him with Joey Calderazzo, who was very much influenced by Kirkland—although he has come into his own thing in more recent years. Even all of his bassists share a very similar approach conceptually: laying down quarter notes and pulling the strings. And even though his new drummer Justin Faulkner is very different from Jeff Watts, they do share a very similar modern jazz drumming aesthetic. It’s not like in the bands of Miles Davis, whose drummers were as radically different as Philly Joe Jones and Jack DeJohnette or Jimmy Cobb and Tony Williams. And if you compare Scenes in the City with Four MFs Playing Music, they’re conceptually very similar. What has changed is that Branford is a much better player. Which is the primary goal for most experimental thinkers: "Let me keep playing this thing until I get it right."

Dave Douglas, on the other hand, might release two or three records in a row with entirely different bands and musical concepts. I feel this is partly due to the fact he's very prolific as a composer and needs many groups to keep up with his creative flow. But I have found Douglas to be working with more of a consistent core of players in recent years. Composers, in general, tend to be conceptual thinkers--since there is a completeness in composing that that doesn't exist in improvised music. And many composers are commissioned to write pieces, which tend to be one-shot deals.

Many conceptual thinkers tend to write for a specific instrumentation and then they find musicians to bring the music to life after it's written. This makes it easier to form numerous groups. Whereas experimental thinkers, tend have a core group of players whom they write for. Think about the 70 recordings that John Coltrane made. He probably didn't use over 20 core musicians--which is very common with experimental thinkers. One thing that they need is a consistent format. Duke Ellington is another. He composed over 1,000 pieces over a 50-year span, with many of the original members still in tact. Talking about a consistent musical canvass. And let me also add that having different projects every year makes it easier for agents to book you year after year—which I will elaborate on in just a moment.

The quintessential conceptual thinker, in my opinion, is Anthony Braxton. Some might say that he is the grandfather of conceptual thinkers. Within Braxton’s very vast catalogue of recordings, one will find a wide array of instrumentations, concepts, and styles. All miraculously sounding like Anthony Braxton at the end of the day. It’s a much different situation than say a John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter, musicians whose careers can easily timetabled by experimental periods using various core band members.  Braxton doesn't make recordings with projects that are particularly tour friendly. My new recording, in fact, The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path to Liberation certainly falls into this category. I have no idea of how to take this music on the road. Sometimes it is OK to make a recording of something just because you feel it would be an interesting project to record. And frankly, some projects don’t warrant that they be explored and examined over the span of several recordings. Sometimes the one recording is enough. I don’t want to hear Kind of Blue, Vol 5.

And not all jazz artists follow the conceptual and experimental schools of thought so diligently. In fact, many jazz musicians throughout their careers, become practitioners of both. And this is sometimes more financially motivated than musically. First of all, in order to follow any of these two schools of thought religiously, one would have to be pretty well-established in their careers. They both require a sound financial support system to be sustained—particularly the experimental thinker's approach. It would have been difficult for Marsalis to have kept a great band together for such an extended period without the high visibility situations he's had the good fortune of being in: like playing with Sting, being the Tonight Show musical director and being signed to Columbia/Sony records for twenty some odd-years. And even though Douglas has not had the high visibility of Marsalis, he does have a consortium of concert and festival promoters who are very enthusiastic and supportive of his musical projects. And his business savvy-ness is pretty evident.

Now as far as the press is concerned, I think conceptual thinkers get more attention simply because their projects are more interesting to write about. Let's face it, how many times can the press keep getting excited about your piano trio, year after year—regardless of how good it is? And I’m speaking purely from a journalistic perspective—especially if you’re one of those musicians who pride him or herself on having a swinging time feel and playing tasteful lines. And besides, conceptual thinkers, quite frankly, are just more interesting subjects to interview and read about.  They’re more likely to discuss new ideas and give fresh perspectives on music that people like myself find interesting and often inspiring; whereas, experimental thinkers tend to just demand praise for having done the work and having stayed the course.They come from a straight ahead world tends to be more discipline-oriented than idea-oriented. It’s a more competitive environment. Ye who knows the most tunes, has the most vast vocabulary, d rwand is the most instrumentally solid, wins the brass ring.  

In closing, I'd just like to say that getting good press is not something we should be concerned about. Our focus should be on creating music that gets our core audience excited, not writers for Down Beat and Jazz Times. Great press should only be the by-product of producing work that excites our core audience. And if you’re on an experimental musical path, accepting that the press is not always going to be excited about what you’re doing, year after year, comes with the territory—unless your group is breaking new ground, year after year. This is often not the case. I do, however, feel that the followers of both schools of thought can learn a lot from each other. Experimental thinkers can open their minds a little more and embrace non-traditional ways of thinking, and conceptual thinkers can flood the jazz market with less pretentiousness. And just for the record, this does not apply to the aforementioned conceptual thinkers named in this piece.

To quote the late Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along!”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Letters to a Young Soprano Saxophonist: Part 3

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Dear Jesse,

Let me begin this email by saying “Welcome!” I’m happy to see that you’ve made the plunge, as they say. Moving to New York is a big decision. I commend you for that alone. It often signifies a moment in ones life at which he or she is about to embark upon a very special journey. Let me add that coming here to go to grad school is a smart and practical way of transitioning from North Carolinian music student to New York jazz musician. Grad school is the perfect conduit: One, it places you in the city; two, you’re here as a student, so much of your time is spent learning and going to school instead of trying to make it; and three, being in school allows you to form a network of personal and musical friends and mentors.  The friends and professors that you play and study with over the next few years or so, will prove to be invaluable resources and a solid support system on whom you can rely for the reminder of your life.

And I do apologize for taking some time to get back to you. As a full time professor, the beginning of September and the end of December are my busiest times of the fall. I’m now in my eighth year and it feels great to have tenure.  When I was your age, I never have imagined having a job for life--which is basically what tenure means. Unless they can prove “gross negligence.” I’d basically have to shoot one if my colleagues or engage in improper conduct with one of my students. Both scenarios are highly unlikely.  My situation is so ironic because when I first moved to New York, I couldn’t even get a sax student, never mind co-running a music program at a university. So I guess this can be a lesson to you: You never know.

In your last email, I sensed that you were having difficulty navigating the turbulent political waters of the New York jazz scene—as they say. Hanging out in New York jazz clubs as the new guy in town can feel as lonely and isolating as being the new kid in junior high. Even if you’re tall, the unfamiliarity with which people see and greet you makes you feel small. Everyone seems to know each other. No one cares that you’re there.  Your life seems like an uphill climb. But it’s OK. It does get easier.

When I first got to New York, musicians who were new in town used to hang out at the Blue Note jazz club in the West Village. During the early nineties, they hosted jam sessions from Tuesday to Sunday from midnight – 3:00 AM. And it was packed. There were hanger-ons from the early show, which featured everybody from Bob James to Herbie Hancock. Established musicians would come there on their nights off or sometimes just to hang out and listen after an earlier gig. And then there were those like me: The green-eyed, wet behind the ear, fresh off the cucumber truck, jazz star wannabes, hoping to find a place in the sea of endless saxophonists known as the New York jazz scene.

When trying to get your feet wet in New York, it helps to approach it with as open a mind with which you play jazz—be prepared for and embrace the unexpected. You have roll with the punches. Have a plan, but understand that you might have to revised that plan in a moments notice--no pun intended. Otherwise you might miss out on an opportunity, simply because you were too blinded by preconceived notions. 

And let me leave you with these last words: Enjoy the process. Enjoy the city.

The bandstand is just where you share your experiences through your instruments. It’s what you do when you’re off the bandstand and away from the club that gives you and your music depth.  Inhale. Now exhale.

Talk to you soon!

- Sam Newsome


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Letters to a Young Soprano Saxophonist: Part 2







Dear Jesse,


I was very excited to read in your last email that you’re planning to move to New York in the fall. Living in New York is an experience unlike anything you can experience anywhere else.  Even though I went to school in Boston, not exactly a small town, I still was not prepared for the daily hustle and bustle that came with being a first-time New Yorker. But it was worth it.

First of all, I made the tragic mistake of coming here with only two months rent and change. Huge mistake! Like I said, I was totally unprepared. Typically I shy away from blaming things on extenuating circumstances, but I’ll make an exception this time.

So here's my explanation for my dearth of cash.

A month or so after I’d graduated from Berklee, I started playing in the band of trumpeter Donald Byrd. Playing with him had looked like it was going to be my ticket to making a name for myself in New York as well paying the bills.  The gig with Byrd seemed to be the answer to the three questions that dominates the thoughts of most college music students about to graduate with a degree in jazz studies: Where will I play? With whom will I play? And how will I make money doing it? Like most curve balls thrown by life, I was not prepared for the unexpected. Many people did not know this, but Donald Byrd was a diabetic and his health was not good. He should not have been on the road, at least not without someone at his side to monitor his health. Long story short, a few weeks after our European tour he was hospitalized due to complications related to diabetes. I didn’t get a chance to see him in the hospital, but it was pretty serious. They didn’t know if was going to pull through. But miraculously he did. He was a pretty strong dude. In fact, a lot of musicians from his era were. Those cats were cut from a different cloth. Needless to say, all of the things we had lined up that fall were cancelled.

And what can I say? So the struggle began!

But I did survive, as most do. As I’m sure you will too.   

You mentioned that you were worried about having to work a day job and not have enough time to practice and play music. And those are legitimate concerns.  During my first year in New York, trying to practice and stay on top of my game proved more difficult than I ever imagined. It was hard. The irony was that I had moved to New York to show people what I could do; however, due to extenuating circumstances,  I was only able to show a poor representation. But I did figure it out. As jazz musicians, just as we’re resourceful with musical language, we eventually learn how to be equally as resourceful in trying to figure out how to survive.

Back to your question.

As far as sustaining yourself financially, while pursuing “the dream,” there are a few ways I’ve seen musicians go about it. One, is to move here with enough savings to hold you over for about a year or so until you get enough things happening musically. Which can be difficult, especially if you’ve just graduated from college. Chances are that most of your and your parent’s resources went into paying for your college education. Two, have a steady gig playing somebody’s band before you get here or soon after. Back in the eighties and early nineties the sought after gigs were with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Tony Williams, Art Taylor and Taylor’s Wailers, Nat Adderely, Wynton Marsalis. These were bandleaders who’d had a history of hiring young players on the scene, giving them enough exposure and experience that they were eventually able to start their own bands--and this happened with Wynton Marsalis to a lesser extent.  Consequently, these players would go on hire young players on the scene, who’d eventually step out on their own--thus creating an environment of passing the torch. However, in today’s musical climate, there aren’t that many musicians who have enough steady work where someone could make a living only playing with them. And the third way that aspiring musicians have sustained themselves financially is by getting a day job—which is what I had to do. 

Unfortunately, I had a degree in jazz studies. So that and a Metro-card got me on the subway. Back then it was a subway token. And I would be lying if I said that trying to do both is not extremely difficult. It will challenge you to contemplate whether not this is really what you want to do. And I’ve seen a few to fall by the wayside. My situation was especially rough. One, I was living in Rego Park, Queens, which might as well have been New Jersey; two, I couldn’t practice in the apartment that I was sharing with a friend that I had moved down from Boston with. It was a luxury coop building that his father owned an apartment in. Mostly irritable seniors lived in the building. So they had zero tolerance for musicians making noise; and three, the temp job that I had paid minimum wage, as it should have, being that I had no skill sets on than playing changes--even that was shaky at times.

But I think in some ways, you’re more fortunate, since musicians from your generation tend to be a lot more resourceful.  One, you don’t need to jump through the hoops of an A & R guy to have the opportunity to make a record. I can't begin to count the number of cassette tapes I tried to get into the hands of people who held the title of "gatekeeper."  Two, you can be more entrepreneurial with teaching. You're not confined to doing it out of a music shop. You can teach via SKYPE, sell books, or even form your own collective.  And three,  it’s a lot easier to network and get the know other musicians. We had to pay money to go inside of a jazz club just to be able to meet other players. Unless you were fortunate enough to get on the coveted guest list. Nowadays, you can make a lot of worthwhile connections on Facebook and Twitter.

Jesse, I will say this. If you do end up coming to New York, just make sure you’re equipped with these three things: thick skin, lots of musical ability, and a nice little financial nest egg to nurse on. If you’re deficient in any of these areas, your time here will be very, very difficult. So practice your horn and save your money.

Keep me posted.

Sincerely,

Sam Newsome

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Letters to a Young Soprano Player: Part 1

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Dear Jesse,

Thanks so much for sending me your CD and the flattering note that accompanied it. I know that as an aspiring young saxophonist, reaching out to older musicians that you’ve never met can be an intimidating thing to do. Actually, when I think about it, it’s probably less frightening of an experience, nowadays, than it used to be. Nowadays, you can just do it over the Internet. When I was your age, the only way we could pick the brains of older musicians was to call them on the phone, go to their gig, or show up at their house. Now that’s what I call frightening.  God forbid you should try that with the wrong person. I recall making a few cold calls to older musicians, only to be greeted with 15 seconds of dead silence, which felt like an hour. One of the reasons I try to be welcoming and encouraging to up and coming players like you is because I do remember so vividly what it was like to be on the other side.

And I do appreciate your kind words about my music. I’ve made many artistic decisions through the years that have made me wonder if anyone would ever like what I do. As an artist, I do want to connect with people on the most basic of levels. But I don’t want to pander to them. I want to play what I hear, not what I think others want to hear. To do this would under-mind the very quality that drew them to my music in the beginning.


When I first switch to the soprano saxophone almost 19 years, I did so not knowing what the future would hold for me. I’ve often likened the process to being like jumping off a cliff and having to grow wings on the way down. Thank goodness I stuck with my guns and didn’t give in to the naysayers. And trust me, there were plenty. All in all it’s a decision that I've never regretted. It has been a life-changing journey that has restored my curiosity and excitement about music. And without a doubt, has strengthened me as a saxophonist, artist and person.

But I do want to honor your request, and give you some constructive feedback on your music—specifically on your soprano playing. And I must say, one of the advantages of seeing yourself as an aspiring jazz musician versus an established one, is that you are open to constructive feedback. Unfortunately, once you graduate from college and start working as a professional, other musicians are usually hesitant to offer feedback--unless you’ve already established a teacher-student dynamic. Otherwise, if they like what you do, they’ll call you back. If they don’t, you won’t hear from them again. That’s the harsh reality of New York. No one is going to say, “Hey, work on these things for six months and give me a call.” They’ll just say, “he plays out of tune,” or “he can’t play changes, or “he doesn’t know any tunes,” or ”he can’t keep good time.”  And that will become your label, at least until they hear you again and you’re able to remove all doubt through your progress.

Now keep in mind that I’m just hearing you on three tunes from a recording, which is lot different from hearing someone live.  The first thing that struck me was that your approach had very little to do with the soprano. It sounded like you were just playing all of the things you'd probably play on tenor, up an octave—which is common. Saxophonists rarely deal with the soprano as though it’s deserving of special treatment different than what’s given to the other saxophones.  The soprano lends itself to a more sound-centered approach to improvisation, versus the idea-centered approach favored by most. 

 Let me clarify how these things differ.

First, let’s start with idea-centered playing. This is when you first realize the idea, and the sound produced is a by-product of implementing the idea. In other words, you think of something to play, and your sound is what’s heard as a result of trying to play it. There are a few advantages this approach. One, you are playing something that’s well rehearsed, so the execution of the idea is often precise and accurate. Two, you have the comfort of knowing that the idea will serve a particular function melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically.

One of the cons, however, is that the idea might sound forced. It might work melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically, but not musically. While I was a student at the Berklee of College of Music, I attended numerous jam-sessions, knowing what lick I was going to play, on which tune and chord. Like many developing players, I figured why practice it if you’re not going to play it--even if the situation doesn’t call for it.

Frankly, approaching music this way can sound uncommunicative, isolated, and technical. And by technical I mean playing ideas that sound calculated and premeditated rather than inspired. Technique in this instance is not a means to an end. It is the means. Just as a side note: If you notice someone’s technique apart from their music, it means they haven’t figured out how to integrate with their music. This is one of the inspiring things about Thelonious Monk. Even though he had a great command of the piano, he never used technique to play a lot of notes. Instead, he used it to play each note with great depth and beauty.

Let me explain sound-centered playing: This is when the primary focus is on sound production, and the ideas heard are mere by-products of the various ways in which you manipulate the sound. One advantage to this approach is that now that you are maximizing each note, which, on the soprano, fully allows you exploring its timbre and textural possibilities before moving on to the next note. Your ideas now take on a more vocal-like quality, which plays to the inherent expressive nature of the instrument. Not to mention, with your sound at the forefront, listeners can now tune into its subtleties—which, by the way, is how listeners will ultimately come to recognize you. 

Jesse, keep in mind that many of these things that I’m mentioning regarding sound should be applied to any instrument that you play. But I am speaking to the soprano, specifically, because this is what I do.

But on a more positive note, I do find your intonation to be pretty accurate. Which is no small feat, especially for someone who hasn’t been playing it that long. I remember when I had just graduated from college, I could barely two consecutive notes in tune. So you’re much further along than I was. But if you’re really serious about getting your soprano chops together, you can’t be satisfied with just being able to play in tune. Maybe 30 – 40 years ago when all sopranos were horrible, maybe you could rest your hat on just being able to play in tune. But nowadays you need to bring much more than that to the table. Nowadays, you need think about developing a voice. And the only way to do that is by thoroughly investigating into the way sound is produced on the instrument and all of its nuances.

So my advice to you is listen, practice and play. And when finish doing that, listen, practice and play some more.  Thanks again for sharing with me your music.  And I hope that you’ll find some of the things I’ve said here useful. If not now, hopefully, in the future.

Take care,
Sam Newsome

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