Sam Newsome

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

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Wait and See: The Art of Patience

Here's a novel thought: Sometimes the answer is that there is NO answer—at least not at that moment. Sometimes the best solution to our musical problems is to WAIT and SEE. This is my view when teaching the daunting task of improvising, and sometimes lessons about life.

One of the biggest mistakes we make trying to help a student work out some improvisational kinks is trying to solve the problem for them right at that moment. This happens frequently. I can introduce students to strategies, but ultimately, they have to solve the problem. Some get it right away. Some take a little longer. Some never get it. As a teacher, that’s their problem, not ours. In some instances, they may discover answers to issues initially not perceived. This is one of the many beauties of traveling a path of discovery. You never know what will turn up.

For those looking to test the improvisational waters, the first thing you should do is play. And after that, play some more. I'm saying this jokingly, but I do feel this is one of the most important steps to take.

Here’s one strategy: Set the alarm for five minutes, and play the first thing that comes to mind. If nothing comes to mind, silence is the best filler. Don’t judge, don’t record, trust your improvisational instincts.

I’d give this a try a few weeks or more. But do it consistently.

The next step: Record yourself. Please do not listen to it until the next day. Do this every time you practice. Again, don’t judge. Just trust your improvisational instincts. Just let it be what it is, because it’s going to change whether you want it to or not. I’d give this a try for a week or two.

Next step: Play with another person. The first two steps teaches you trust your own inner-directed instincts. This teaches you to respond to others. Playing with others is a different beast altogether, but a necessary one. No matter what kind of language you’re learning, the only way to truly master it is to learn to converse with others.

After that: Listen to recordings. Transcribe ideas. Seek advice on the kinds of strategies used by more experienced players. But by all means, keep playing. Keep improvising. These strategies are all unique in their own way, each playing an important role in helping you to master your newly acquired improvisational language.

A Jerry Seinfeld story: During one episode of his show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Seinfeld and his guest started goofing on stand-up comedy classes.

Both felt that these kinds of classes are on the silly side.

I’m paraphrasing here, but Seinfeld said this is how comedy classes should be taught.

“Go home and write jokes.

Try those jokes in front of an audience.

Then go home and write more jokes.

End of class!”

He said what I’ve been saying throughout this piece: sometimes there are no immediate answers or solutions, maybe other than time and patience. 

Here’s what life has taught me: The answers to your questions will come when you’re READY for them, NOT when you ASK for them.

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Reason I Like to Play Experimental Music

I’ve often heard musicians suggest that those who play experimental music or free jazz are either too lazy to really learn how to play, or they're charlatans faking their way through an abstract musical life. In this world, “being able to play” simply means being able to improvise over moderate to advanced harmonic structures in sync with a moderate to advanced rhythmic backdrop. Easier said than done, mind you. This is something I still practice.


And I’m only mentioning this to give you some context of the common narrative regarding this type of music. Now, before I explain why I disagree with the above assertions and why I focus more experimental concepts, I want to talk about the NASA imagination test. 

This was a test conducted by Dr. George Land and Beth Jarman. They were hired by NASA to develop an imagination test to measure the creative potential of their rocket scientists and engineers. They wanted to see who the latent game changers were. As many anticipated, the test was very successful. However, being scientists, Land and Jarman decided measure how the test faired with children, so consequently, it was given to 1,600 children between the ages 4 and 5. 


Well, here’s the stat that knocked everyone off their feet. Ninety eight percent of the children scored in the genius category of being able to come up with innovative ideas or solutions to problems. 


But it gets better.


Then they decided to make it a long-term study and test the same children five years later when they are ten-years-old. Equally as surprising, now only 30 percent of the children scored in the category of genius. The number dropped 68 percent. In other words, they became 13.6 percent less creative each year.


At fifteen, the number dropped more than half to 12 percent.


Here’s the number that’s more staggering than the first. Amongst adults, which is categorized as people over the age of 31, the number fell to a shocking two percent. Yes, two percent.


Some questions you might be asking yourselves.

  • Are we becoming less smart?  
  • Are we digressing intellectually? 

Just the opposite. 

As far conventional methods of measuring intelligence and mental capabilities, a fifteen-year-old is by far smarter than a five-year-old.


However, while we become better at math and gain a greater command of language, we do become less imaginative, the older we become. Or as some would say, “the more educated we become.”

To give us a deeper understanding as to why, it’s important to understand how we learn and how we think.


There are two main ways: divergent and convergent.


Divergent thinking uses the imagination to create new possibilities, to take us down new or under-explored avenues. Convergent thinking uses the brain to judge, critique, evaluate, and arrive at the one correct answer. All of the skill sets needed to get a good grade. 


So back to my original statement: The reason I like to play experimental music.


Simply put, I’m trying to tap into the imaginative genius I probably had as a five-year-old. Looking to recapture that which was taught out of me through an educational system that only looked for correct answers, not the creative ones. Even though I was a lot more skilled when I left Berklee, I was probably a lot more imaginative when I was in high school. This is what happens when you move through a convergent centered educational system.

Years ago, I was touring the West Coast with drummer Leon Parker and we gave a clinic at one of the colleges on the tour. I remember that Leon was pretty unimpressed with the students who played for us. Then this 12-year-old kid got up and played. He had limited skills on the saxophone and little knowledge of theory and harmony. But Leon was very impressed that he could hear the kid's imagination. Whereas the older students we trapped inside the left side of their brains.

This is not uncommon. Many students will graduate from college music programs less creative than when they were in junior and high schools. Of course, they’ll be more skilled and more employable, but most will find it difficult to move out of the mode of convergent thinking. This is also one of the reasons why young jazz stars are often very linear. They were groomed in an environment where they're taught that playing it correctly is the final musical destination. 

When I teach music appreciation classes and we're discussing jazz, one exercise I conduct with them to better explain how improvisation works, is that I have them collectively create a story on the spot. 

And I lay out a few ground rules:

  • What ever is said must be in someway connected to what was said before.
  • Keep statements short.
  • Don't overthink it!

Much to my surprise, the college students between the ages of 18 - 21, really struggle with this. I always get the feeling it was their first time being asked to find creative solution rather than a correct one. 

They often say things like: 

  • "I don't know what say." 
  • "Nothing is coming to me."
  • "This is too hard."
I've also conducted this with much younger kids, and the overall experience is much different for them. 
  • They're having fun. 
  • They say silly things. 
  • Most importantly, they're being spontaneous. 
They see the big picture: to use their imaginations. So when I read this study by Land and Jarman, I was not at all surprised. 

Again, as far as my relationship with experimental music, I'm drawn to it because it lends itself to more divergent centered thinking, and this keeps me inspired, young in mind and in spirit. I'm as equally inspired today as I was in junior high. Knock on wood! I've seen some of my peers with whom I moved to New York in the 1990s, struggling to keep music fun and exciting. It's certainly understandable. Many have been traveling the same path for over thirty years. It's difficult watching the same movie when you know how it's going to end.


After hearing someone play in a way that might be seen as jive or bullshitting, you have to consider what they might be trying to tap into and why. Sometimes unleashing this inner creative child takes precedence over swinging and playing over chord changes. It’s not always about sounding beautiful in the conventional sense, but sounding free, being free. Or as I like to look at it, sounding optimistic and spreading sonic hope that the possibilities are endless and boundless. It’s the same feeling that I get when I look up at the sky, versus looking at the ground. Very different emotions and thoughts are conjured up. I prefer the former. I also think this is one of the reason artists' work becomes more abstract the older they get. It allows them to make more divergent centered connections.

Picasso articulated it best when he said that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. He too, was just trying to get back to where he started: five years old and genius level. 

* A special thanks to Monika Herzig for bring the NASA study to my attention.
Before you go, please check out my most recent video from the Sudden Sound Series, curated by Jason Finkelman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My inner five-year-old is certainly coming through.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Perfect Intonation: Three Approaches to Sound Control

Most of us know that practicing long tones is our path to a great sound and great intonation. And we know how to do them. So, no need to preach to the choir here.  But the question I pose is this: how do we assess them?  


I utilize three methods. I’m sure there’s are more, but these work best me.

  1. Pitch matching
  2. Cents monitoring
  3. Parallel intervals


Pitch matching:

Pitch matching is taking an external pitch and trying to match or blend with it.

When using this method, having an outside sound source is necessary. I advise using a chromatic tuner, but certainly playing notes on a piano or keyboard instrument will do. Though not the most reliable, even having another person play a note while you try to match it can also be helpful. The effective part of this method is that you have to really hear the note. There’s no subjective rationalization, it’s either in tune or out of tune. To further make this point, I suggest wearing headphones and turning the reference note way up. It’s very humbling! When I first have players do this, they usually take off the headphones after 30 seconds. The truth can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow.


Cents monitoring:


Cents monitoring is using the light or needle on the metronome to see whether you're flat or sharp.

This method is all visual. Again, you’re taking your cue from the needle or the light. You’re either to the left of the center (flat), to the right (sharp), or dead center (in tune). Another visual component to this is that when the pitch is flat or sharp a red light appears. It's green when the note is in tune. This method is great because your eyes can see what your ears sometimes can’t hear. Which is ok, too. As long as you can hear where the issues are.


Parallel intervals:


Parallel interval practicing is when you match up intervals against each other in different keys.

I find this approach to be the least accurate but the most helpful. Sometimes it’s not so much about being in tune with the tuner but being able to play in tune with the person or persons you’re playing with. So practicing intervals does this. 




If you're not clear on what this, this is what I mean:


Take the upper register for example. Play a series of perfect fourth intervals. A to D; Bb to Eb; B to E;  C to F, etc. This method is less about matching A - 440 and more about matching the person or sound source you're playing with.


 I’ll post some exercises later, but this should get you started in thinking about long tones in different ways. Or at least having different ways to approach them.




Until next time...

Monday, December 7, 2020

Want to be a better free player? Practice jazz

Being someone who plays mostly experimental and free jazz gigs these days, one of the things that I’m discovering during this COVID-19 period is the importance of working on my jazz skills. Yes, that four-letter-word! Time permitting, this is something I typically work on even when not in lockdown. Folks often look at me side-eyed when I tell them that what I work on most is playing over standards and honing jazz my vocabulary. It’s true. I can only spend but so much time attaching things to my instrument. I still have to address the fundamentals.

 Even though I self-identify as an artist or even an experimentalist, the root of it all is jazz. 

 Here are the three category of things I like to practice:

1. LICKS/PATTERNS: many shun this sort of thing, but practicing these types of ideas in different keys at different tempos is an excellent form of study.

A few benefits:

  • instrumental control
  • command of musical vocabulary
  • aural skill development
  • rhythmic clarity

2. PLAYING STANDARDS: working your way through a set of chord changes with a rhythm section providing some steady swing underneath you is a great way to improve your harmonic understanding, rhythmic sharpness, and melodic clarity. Not to mention the added benefit of learning how to swing. With all of the backing tracks available on YouTube, it’s a fun way to spend a lot of time with your instrument, while continuing to hone your ability to interact with other players in real-time. 

3. ETUDES: shedding etudes is a great form of objective practice. You can hone specifics like different fingerings, intonation, and overall instrument dexterity. The great thing about etudes is that you can isolate specific parts of a piece and still reap tremendous benefits. 

These things aid into doing one thing: enabling your ideas to flow freely and effortlessly--especially during these times when playing with others is limited.  You must see these things as a means to becoming a better improviser, not necessarily as a means to becoming a great jazz musician. However, if you can both...Hooray!

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Will The New World Order Be Scarier Than The Old?


As much as the Democratic Party and those on the left may hate Trump, they actually owe him a great thanks. Why? He did something not done since the 1960s: he united the Democratic Party, all of the radicals on the left, and many of the RINO's on the right. He gave them an unwavering and clear sense of purpose: to make him a one-termer by any means necessary. And given the situation, you would not think that he had a shot in hell of winning. In fact, it's nothing short of a miracle that he did as well as he did. We heard for months about the "blue wave" that would leave Trump with dismal numbers on election night. This was hardly the case. I would say it was more like a blue drizzle that covered the Democratic ground in the eleventh hour. And according to the Trump campaign, there was a blue wave, but it came in around 4:00 AM after we all went to sleep.  

If Trump only ran against Joe Biden, I suspect he could have pulled it off without a hitch, definitely without the help of the state and federal courts. But unfortunately for him, he was running against five much more worthy opponents.

  1. The Big Tech industry: Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter; etc
  2. The mainstream media; MSNBC, CNN, and FOX News, near the end;
  3. The entertainment industry;
  4. The elite intellectual class of colleges and universities;
  5. And the most challenging of them all, COVID-19!

To run against one of these entities is suicidal, to go up against all five is catastrophic.


As you can see, Biden is far down the list. This might also explain his anemic campaigning efforts. There was no need to break a sweat; he had a left-wing ideological super pack doing the fighting for him. Never before in the history of politics has a presidential candidate been able to campaign non-aggressively, exist in a media-protected cocoon, and still win with the most votes ever. I personally find this to be astounding. Keep in mind he received more votes than Ronald Reagan, who received over  97% of the entire Electoral College; and Barack Obama, who was a political rockstar of the likes we've never seen. 

But before we let any conspiracy theories run wild, when you look at what this election was really about, the numbers seem more palatable. This election wasn't about this candidate against that candidate, it was about a growing movement in America and a resistance to that movement. As far as the left was concerned, they did not need a candidate to lead them, but one who would not get in their way. I think this is what's so difficult for Donald Trump to wrap his mind around. He can't fathom how an uncharismatic, low-energy, boiler-plate template of a candidate could beat him. The reality as that Biden did not beat him, all of the entities I just named did. And some make the argument that Trump beat himself. 

Some elections are complicated like this, where it's not always candidate versus candidate. In 2008, Barack Obama may have been running against John McCain, but McCain was running against Obama, the Irag war, and George W. Bush's failed economy. Hardly a fair fight.



And this leads to my next point: before we all jump for joy for overthrowing a racist/xenophobe/misogynist/serial liar/fill in the blank, we have to do two things: 1) wait for the Trump campaign to finish contesting the outcome, which is within their legal right, 2) we have to make sure we have not built a monster we can't control. As they say: "We have to make sure the solution is not worst than the problem." 

This is the issue when we create a super monster, literally and figuratively, to defeat what we perceive as a current threat: when the match is over, we end up with a fighting machine with no foe to receive its wrath. Not to worry though. This monster will find a new one. And this is what scares. As time has proven, in this animus game of political chess, black America is always the pawn. 


We know what fascism looks like on the right, but what does it look like on the left? My fear is that we'll soon see. Some argue that this fascist monster has already shed its red hide for a blue one.

My question is this? What happens when the opposition becomes more subtle and ideological and less in your face and brawny, like Trump? Then we're looking at a different kind of fight. One where we won't realize we're losing until it's too late. 


 If all of these entities are working together, how much freedom will we really have?

  • Where will Facebook draw the line?  
  • Where will Google draw the line?
  • Where will Twitter draw the line? 
  • Where will mainstream media draw the line?
If FOX News can turn on Trump, what's to stop MSNBC and CNN from turning on those whom we hold dear? Unfortunately, these organizations are no longer legitimate news networks, they've digressed into political propaganda machines--on the right and the left.

Here's where we need to be careful: the folks doing the censoring and deciding what's best for us, no longer look like Strom Thurman. In fact, they're scarier and more deceptive because they get to hide behind the left-wing ideology. They wear jeans and T-shirts. They like the same movies and books and us. They know the perfect thing to say to make us feel guilty. They know exactly how to scare us. They understand how to make us put to rest any oppositional thoughts. Even though they're multi-billionaires, they get to dismiss the white middle class as privileged and out of touch. It's a convenient shield. Big Tech billionaires get to hide behind the guise of being Stanford and Harvard intellectuals. They are part of our intellectual elite. They are prized. To me, they are the scariest and most potent strain of white supremacy. When you match them with the propaganda-for-hire mainstream media, it's an ideological force with which we can not compete. We've been duped into thinking that The Proud Boys poses the real threat to our democracy. Politicians have been running the same con on black America for decades. I can see it a mile away.

Over the past four years, while we sat back and watch this consortium strengthen its political-ideological chain, we failed to notice that we might be throwing our future First Amendment Rights out of the window. No one noticed and, quite frankly, no one cared, since this machine had but one objective: GET TRUMP OUT OF OFFICE. 

Mission Accomplished. Well...we'll see.

Many probably don't remember this, but in 2000, Ralph Nader predicted that someone like Trump was needed to galvanize the party. But he probably never anticipated anything of this magnitude or that it would take so long. During the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Nader dismissed them both as being "institutions dominated by corporate interests?" It turns out that he was correct. We really saw this in 2016 when a slew of Republicans began throwing their support behind Hillary. My first thought: Nader called it! He referred to Bush and Gore as "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." He also said, "I'd rather have a provocateur than an anesthetizer in the White House." Provocateur is what we got. And galvanization is what we got.



In the meantime, as the mainstream media works to find a new ratings cash cow to prop up its dying industry, and as Big Tech fine-tunes its definition of "hate," "explicit," or "inflammatory," we'll have to wait with bated breath to see who the new fall guy will be. Who knows? Maybe they'll run the this-is-all-Trumps-fault narrative for four years. The most frightening part of a Biden presidency is how silent I feel we'll become as a nation. For better or worst, under Trump, the public was not afraid to voice their opinions. Under Biden, it could get more complicated. To actually criticize Biden could be an admittance that Trump was actually correct about some things and that all of his policies were not bad. Are we ready to go back to an out of control immigration situation? Are we ready to return to the Bush days of living in fear over terrorist threats? Are we ready to be tied up in senseless wars overseas? I'm not sure the country is ready for this type of reflection and honesty. The easiest thing to do is to be silent and keep saying to ourselves, "At least he's not Trump." 

Meanwhile, we have an ideological consortium that's in tip-top shape and ready go. Let's just hope the next person, idea, movement, style of music, is not something or someone WE cherish. After all, this new elite class has already decided that THEY know what's best for us.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Bad Plus plays Ornette Coleman: Featuring Tim Berne, Ron Miles, and Sam Newsome

On Saturday, October 18, 2014, I had the pleasure of performing with The Bad Plus as a part of a project commissioned by Duke Performances appropriately titled The Bad Plus plays “Science Fiction.”


In addition to the TBP members of Ethan Iverson, on piano; Reid Anderson, on bass; and Dave King on drums, additions to the group included Ron Miles on trumpet, Tim Berne on alto saxophone, with me holding down the soprano chair.


The performance took place at the Baldwin Auditorium which sounded and looked great. Long story short, the group was a hit which led to scattered dates in the US, and a couple trips to Europe.


A little about the music: Science Fiction was first released in 1972 on Columbia Records and featured many of Ornette’s core members and a few newbies:

  • Ornette Coleman, alto saxophone, trumpet, violin
  • Don Cherry, pocket trumpet 
  • Bobby Bradford, trumpet
  • Carmine Fornarotto, trumpet
  • Gerard Schwarz, trumpet
  • Dewey Redman, tenor saxophone, musette
  • Charlie Haden - bass
  • Billy Higgins, drums
  • Ed Blackwell, drums
  • David Henderson, recitation 
  • Asha Puthli, vocals

I would not say that this was classic Ornette, it more of a breakthrough. In fact, Steve Huey in the AllMusic Review had this to say.

"Science Fiction was his creative rebirth, a stunningly inventive and appropriately alien-sounding blast of manic energy... Science Fiction is a meeting ground between Coleman's past and future; it combines the fire and edge of his Atlantic years with strong hints of the electrified, globally conscious experiments that were soon to come. And, it's overflowing with brilliance.” 

The original set unfolded like this:


1.     "What Reason Could I Give?" 

2.     "Civilization Day" 

3.     "Street Woman" 

4.     "Science Fiction" 

5.     "Rock the Clock" 

6.     "All My Life" -

7.     "Law Years" 

8.     "The Jungle Is a Skyscraper" 


Here's a short sample:


The modified version performed by The Bad Plus went more like this:

1.     "What Reason Could I Give?" 

2.     "Rock the Clock" 

3.     "The Jungle Is a Skyscraper" 

4.     "Science Fiction" 

5.     "All My Life"

6.     “Broken Shadows”

7.     “Happy House”


The following performance was recorded on September 12, 2015, at the Jazz à la Villette in Paris, France as a part of a multi-day music festival. Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to record this band in the studio, but I’m glad our performance was at least documented in some capacity. It was fun playing and fun hanging. It will definitely go down as one of my more memorable musical experiences.


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Multicultural or Liberal: Which Society Spawns More Creativity?


Which is better for artists, to live in a multicultural society or a liberal one? We should first examine how we define the two.

In a multicultural society, the collective comes together as individuals. In a liberal society, individuals come together as a collective. 

Let me unpack this further. Under multiculturalism, the individual is not asked to sacrifice his or her identity for the whole. The more prominent their identity, the stronger the multicultural model becomes. A good example is salad. You never want to diminish the uniqueness of the lettuce and tomatoes and cucumbers. Their individuality is what makes it a salad. Liberal societies play by a different set of rules. In a liberal society, it’s about serving the whole, which requires one to sacrifice their identity or at least revise it. The vegetables no longer have the identity of the salad but the uniformity of a smoothie. 

How’s does all of this affect us as artists? How does it affect creativity?

As artists, our dissatisfaction with the status quo is what often motivates us to create. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, there’s a book that we want to read that has not been written, so we write it. In our effort to write that book, we don’t look to the tried and tested but the new and under-explored. In other words, uniqueness.

Liberal societies, on the other hand, encourages the melting pot, or as I like to call it, the smoothie model, where we assimilate to create a unified image. Again, this type of unification ignores fundamental differences that make us unique. The basic tenet of most artists, not only shuns this idea of identity-sacrificed uniformity, but we view and share our uniqueness from a high-resolution perspective. In other words, we take that which is not commonplace and we bring it to the forefront.

The smoothie model may be a convenient solution for the complexities of diversity and uniqueness. Still, as artists, the salad model allows us to repurpose our individuality into a new normal. 

The more diverse we are within our society, the more we're incentivized to embrace our uniqueness. The more unique our perspective, the more fertile our creative wells become. I call it the relay-effect. It's a win-win situation.

Wait and See: The Art of Patience

Here's a novel thought: Sometimes the answer is that there is NO answer—at least not at that moment. Sometimes the best solution to our ...