Sam Newsome

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

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sound and Silence: The Democratic Aspects of Improvisation

Through the lens of politics, jazz is democracy in action--individual and collective liberties being negotiated in real time on the bandstand. Jazz, since it's inception has operated under the basic principle that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, a brand new shiny Yamaha soprano saxophone that is completely disassembled and displayed as keys, pads, screws, springs, corks and various pieces of metal is almost worthless in comparison to the perfectly assembled and functioning one, complete with all of its parts working individually and collectively  as a conduit for expressing musical ideas.

This concept is probably more easily seen in a group comprised of several players. But how can this type of democracy be seen when playing solo?--particularly solo saxophone. The answer: silence.

Silence, when used effectively, allows the performer to create a type of call and response during the performance. It's similar to comparing giving a speech (playing without silence) to giving a sermon (playing with silence). During a sermon, particularly those given in African American churches, it's usually a dialogue; a call and response between the pastor and the congregation. The democracy is seen in the respect each has for each other's role during the sermon. The pastor feels less mobilized  without the countenance of shouts and amens of the congregation. And the congregation is without direction and purposed without the pastor's spiritual and fiery message. Again, an affirmation of the democratic process in action. 

I have often spoken of silence as the quiet partner of a solo saxophone performance. The sonic yang to the improvisational yin. In some ways, it almost sounds too easy. Not play? Make music by doing nothing? The reality is that it is very difficult to make use of silence. Which almost sounds humorous to insinuate that they hardest part of playing is not playing. Well, it is true. I have plenty of recordings, my own included, that proves this true over and over again.

On the following video, I'm performing a solo rendition of "Blue in Green." As with most of my solo works, I'm operating within extremes: sporadic and circular breathed phrases; loud and soft dynamic levels; legato and percussive attacks; melodic as well as abstract lines, and so on. Even though I'd hardly call myself a master of the using silence in the ways in which I spoke of earlier, I do feel that my intent can be heard.

The important musical events are as follows:

0:00 -  Silence. I've learned you don't always have to begin your solo with sound.

0:10 - I play the first half of my motif.

0:14 - I left six seconds of silence--which can seem like an eternity while you're in the throws of a performance.

0:20 - I began playing into the strings of the piano, which, while pressing down the damper pedal, allows you to create a very lush natural reverb from the strings vibrating. During this section, you hear the back and forth between sound production and sound reverberation. Again, staying true to the democratic principle of everyone having a say.

1:22 - The melody is played using the technique of circular breathing. This enables me to play the entire melody without a break in sound. This also creates a drone-like effect that adds to the drama. Occasionally I added to this drama by swinging the horn back and forth to create a Doppler-like effect.

2:00 - The melody is played the second time with slightly more drama using increased volume and by swinging my horn back and forth more frequently and rapidly.

2:29 - The melody ends on the V7 to i cadence.

2:31 - Three seconds of silence.

2:35 - The improvised solo over the tune's chord progression begins. This is where the dialogue between sound and space starts to unfold. The democratic negotiations between the yin and the yang, if you will.

4:29 - The melody is played the last time, re-implementing the circular breathing technique until the tune's ending.

So, as you can see, pulling off a solo performance is a delicately nuanced process. It's not just about you playing your ideas or getting to your "shit," as they say. You have to be very much aware of the democracy within the creative process--even if it is between you and your silent partner. You'd be surprised at how profound he can be when given a chance.

And as an addendum, I have two solo concerts coming up this month:

Saturday, March 26, 2016
Rocky Mountain Saxophone Summitt @ Colorado State University
(Masterclass and solo concert)

Thursday, March 31, 2016
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem
(Lecture and solo concert)


  1. A couple of years ago I heard Roscoe Mitchell say something to the effect of "Silence is already perfect - what are you going to do when you interrupt it?"

  2. I love it! Thanks for sharing that with me. It's so true.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Search This Blog

Blog Archive