Sam Newsome

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

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Gerry Teekens: Record Producer, Drummer, and Lover of the Music (R.I.P.)

In the fall of 1988, pianist Benny Green called me at my apartment in Rego Park, Queens to tell me that a Dutch record label guy was interested in hearing me play and possibly sign me to record for his label. That man, of course, was Gerry Teekens. The founder and president of Criss Cross Records.

A year later, after a lot of back and forth and international phone calls, I recorded my first and only recording as a leader on the tenor saxophone with Gerry’s label. The recording was appropriately titled Sam I Am, and featured a fantastic cast of musicians: Mulgrew Miller, Steve Nelson, James Genus, and Billy Drummond. What’s funny, is that I have not worked with some of them since. I was one a many younger musicians being signed to the label at the time: Javon Jackson, Don Braden, John Swana, Mike LeDonne, just to name a few.

Those who worked with Gerry back in the late eighties and early nineties knew that he liked two things: the recording to be swinging (preferably standards), and the practitioners of that swing to be name players, especially if the leader was an unknown like myself. At the time, I’m not sure I truly appreciated the opportunity to record on his label. I was 24 years old and full of myself—like many of my peers at the time. Also, during this time, major labels were signing a lot of young musicians, so of course, this was the ultimate fish I wanted to reel out of the sea. Eventually, it did happen, but almost a decade later. At the time I recorded Sam I Am, the leaders on his dates got $1,000.00 and the sidemen received $500.00. In hindsight, it wasn't a bad deal--especially compared to today's standards.

I’d always had aesthetical clashes with Gerry, but I did respect his commitment to what he liked and his willingness to record players solely because he liked the way they played--even if they were not cats getting a lot of hype or proven big sellers. He was also willing to take a chance on unknowns: black and white, young and old, male and female. If he liked the way you played, he’d record you. There’s certainly something admirable about this.

Gerry was different from many of the European label guys who either favored other European players or music that was more experimental. His taste back then was jazz more closely tied to black culture (hard bop, specifically), but he’d record anyone willing to create within these aesthetical, musical, and cultural realms. Over the years, he did begin to release things that fell outside of the "straight-ahead" label. So he was open to change but in small increments.

I used to jokingly call him Uncle Gerry, poking fun of how he used to stroll into town during the Christmas holiday with a sack full of record contracts in tow. I say this jokingly, but it wasn’t too far from the truth. In many instances, he’d come to New York, stay at the Seafarer & International House, a two-star hotel located in Union Square, book a studio for two weeks and commence to make a record per day, along with his partner in crime, recording engineer and drummer Max Bolleman.

Back then, all of his recordings were live to two-track. No overdubs, no mixing, no tweaking. It was what it was. So you'd best come prepared! One tends to have a love-hate relationship with this recording process. It's nerve-cringing having to live with all of one’s mistakes, but comforting to know that you're going to walk out of the studio with a finished product.

So Rest In Peace, Uncle Gerry, and thanks for giving so many musicians their first opportunity to record, myself included. You may have left us, but your catalog of meaningful work will live on.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

More Tube Talk: Exploring the Hookah Sax Technique

Extending the range of my soprano saxophone by attaching plastic tubes to my instrument's neck has become somewhat of a regular thing for me over the past three to four years. In fact, I recorded an entire CD centered around this idea. Please check Chaos Theory: Song Cycles for Prepared Saxophone. The music explains it much better than I ever could here.

I'm happy to say that there are other like-minded saxophonists exploring this idea of extending the lower range of the instrument. As much as I like being a lone wolf, tirelessly carving out my own niche, I do, however, love having company!

The first person I'd like to discuss is soprano saxophonist Kayla Milmine, an important figure on Toronto's improvised music scene. This is an excerpt from a performance with the Mark Zurawinski ensemble at the Tranzac Club in Toronto. The piece is "Something Sweet, Something Tender" from Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch recording. Kayla favors the upper partials over the lower sonorities on this performance. This is not necessarily out of choice. In many instances when playing on this set-up, one has to learn to work with whatever comes out--something Kayla does very well.

Next, is saxophonist Zachary Kenefick. This piece is titled "Solo No.1 for Prepared Saxophone," performed at the Art Exchange in Long Beach, California. Zachary's approach is more drone centered, utilizing circular breathing as a way of creating a drone-like effect. There's very little rhythmic or tonal variation--the minute or so introduction using the mouthpiece, being the exception. The focus here is on creating a trans-like state, something he does very effectively.

 This excerpt is from the Ken Ueno piece "Babbling," which features Splinter Reeds, a woodwind quintet with Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, David Wegehaupt on saxophone, Dana Jessen on bassoon, Jeff Anderle on bass clarinet, and Bill Kalinkos on Bb clarinet. On "Babbling," David is using the technique to create more of a gurgling effect--similar to how Kayla played in the earlier example. Ken Ueno also refers to preparing the saxophone in this way as "hookah sax." The hookah sax part begins at 4:20.

Check out this clip of David getting used to the sound of the tubes before performing "Babbling."

Keeping within the Ken Ueno theme, here an excerpt from Zach Shemon of the PRISM Saxophone Quartet, preparing to play Ueno's "Future Lilacs." What's interesting about this clip is how Zach is using what appears to be a baritone saxophone mouthpiece on a tube extension attached to an alto saxophone.

In this clip, I'm demonstrating a wide range of sounds: gurglings, noise, a drone, the Doppler effect, and implied grooves. Here, I'm to exploit the many varied timbres that exist within this prepared horn configuration--the highs and the lows, the abstract and the grooving, and all that's in-between.

Conclusion: One thing that all of these examples have in common is that the players are forced to work within a micro-range; 12TET is not an option. This approach gives both the listener and the player a more centralized listening sphere, where the improvisation is more about micro-texture manipulation than harmonic and technical displays of mastery. Improvisation should not aim only to intimidate those around us. Inspiring and lifting others is probably a more effective and long-lasting means of musical communication.

Thanks for checking this out. And a very special thanks to everyone featured in this blog post for their continued inspiration.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

84th Annual Readers Poll: The Soprano Saxophone Category

I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had placed in the 84th Annual DownBeat Readers Poll in the Soprano Saxophone category. I am the LAST ONE on the list, mind you. But I don't see this as a negative. Trust me when I say that many did.

Here's the way I see it: Most people on this list are either ultra-mainstream or are at least "jazz famous." I'm more in the middle. My music over the last decade can hardly be described as mainstream. In fact, it pushes boundaries, even compared to the revered avant gardists. And as far as me being known...I'm not "jazz famous," I more "jazz respected"--at least I'd like to think so.

Me being a part of this is not only a win for me, but for everyone who has decided to play by their own rules. I'm a firm believer that if you consistently put your work out there, folks will listen.


For the complete list of results, CLICK HERE

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Words From The Wise (2): Create or Steal?


One of the biggest fallacies regarding one's desire to be original is denying oneself the knowledge of music. I've encountered many musicians, young and old, who've feared that learning the language of jazz would actually stifle them--or at least make them sound out of touch.

As the Teacher told the Student, you don't have to invent everything that you play, you only have to own it. Most scientific breakthroughs are based on the work of others. These theories and experiments are not pulled out of thin air.

If we define originality as sounding like no other, beginners are the most original players I've heard. The key is to play and create with the spirit of a small child, not the knowledge of one.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Words From The Wise (1): Mistake or Humanity?

We’ve all had that experience where we’ve listened back to ourselves on recordings and found it to be nothing but a cringe-fest. Like the Student in this story, it’s usually because we are only listening to ourselves, and not fully taking in the musical performance in its entirety.

Musical acceptance can be difficult, especially in a recording situation where what we play is on record forever; but it is possible. Playing what we wanted to play, the way we wanted to play it is not always the best thing for the music. As the Teacher told the Student, sometimes it's not our place to judge. We’re only there to deliver the message.

Even if we don't like the message at that moment in time, things could change. Over time,  our worse moments can become our most profound.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Creative Sunk Cost Considerations: Improvisation and Microeconomics

In microeconomics, a sunk cost is when you invest money, time, effort, or emotion into something, and your investment can not be returned. 

For example: Let's say you bought a piano for $4,000.00 because you thought it would be a fun instrument to learn. The $4,000.00 for the keyboard would be sunk since that money will never be returned. Now, let's say after taking a few lessons, you've realized it's not as much fun as you'd anticipated. This is where sunk cost fallacy comes in. You continue to take lessons, not because you want to learn the piano, but because you've already shelled out four grand for it. Not to mention the additional money for lessons, books, piano maintenance, and the drudgery of having to practice every day. 

As you can imagine, this happens in many aspects of our lives: the relationships we form, the food we eat, and even during the creative process.

When improvising, some of our bad decisions result from what I call creative sunk cost considerations. We play specific ideas, not because the situation warrants them, but because we've invested numerous hours honing that particular idea. So in our minds, we figure, "why not?" Not doing it would be time wasted.

And this is two-fold. Ultimately, as improvisers, you want to play things that are comfortable and easy to execute. This is the only way you can control the musical situation. However, for many, these tried and tested ideas can be viewed as old creative investments, and our focus then shifts to showcasing our most recent innovative investments—even if by playing these ideas, the musical situation becomes musically compromised. 

Not succumbing to creative sunk cost fallacies is one of our biggest challenges as improvisers. Some players already know what they're going to play on each tune before they get to the gig. I used to be one of them.

The discipline and willingness not to give in to creative sunk cost fallacies are what separates the student from the professional, the artisan from the artist. In the context of creativity, it's good to think long term. It's wise not to become too emotionally invested in newer ideas practiced. The temptation to prematurely force our ideas into a musical setting becomes too much to control. While a student at Berklee, I was told to forget the things that I'd practiced, once I'd mastered them. This was difficult. In my mind, I figured Why bother if I couldn't enjoy the fruits of an immediate application? This is typical thinking regarding creative sunk cost considerations. 

Well... here's why (and this took me a long time to figure out).

In the context of improvisation, the present-day losses become the creative wins of the future.

Anyway, fruit for thought.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Zen Parable: Maybe (Embracing Indifference)

Zen parable: Maybe
 Once upon a time, there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. "Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.

Maybe," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.

"Maybe," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

"Maybe," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was injured, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

"Maybe," said the farmer.

This story is a reminder that there's a natural order to life. Within this order, there are highs and lows, sunny days and cloudy days, good times, and bad times. We do not know whether these events in our lives will bring good fortune or misfortune. These things are out of our control. Life is a perfect chain of events, connected by perfectly arranged, imperfect links.

For the events that happened in the farmer's life, he had the wisdom not to get too excited about happy events, nor too upset over the negative ones--for all were necessary for his journey. And where each of these events eventually led, were revealed in due time.

As musicians, we must approach our music and careers with the same wisdom. Whether we're seeking the high-profile gig, the sweet record deal, top billing on festivals, or accolades from those in the industry, we should not put too much importance in any of these. Some of these things will lead to our happiness; some will leave us perpetually sad. And as demonstrated in the story about the farmer, you never know.

I used to be roommates with a guy named John, who also approached life in this way. John was textbook-skeptic. Every time something seemingly good happened, he would always respond with, "We'll see." Our conversations we're usually Like this:

Me: Hey John, your two-week tour in Europe should be exciting!
John: We'll see.
Me: John, when your record comes out, that's going to be some great exposure.
John: We'll see.
Me: John, your new girlfriend, seems charming.
John: We'll see.

John was as a skeptic on crack! He was never really emotionally invested one way or the other. Today, however, I understand his feelings.

Thinking about all of these things takes me back to 1999 when I got signed to a record deal with Columbia/Sony. I finally felt that I had a chance of having a career as a solo artist. Unfortunately, I was dropped from the label a year later. As you can imagine, I was pretty devastated. But like the unfortunate events in the farmer's life, this, too, ended up being a blessing in disguise.

Losing my recording contract taught me a couple of things: One, relying on others to build a career for me was too risky and compromising. While on the label, I always in the backseat of the car, never behind the steering wheel. Artistically speaking, being dropped, forced me to dig deeper into finding my sound.

Playing solo taught me how to be exciting as a player and tap into that which is uniquely me. And now I find I'm able to connect with players and listeners in almost any context. I would never have discovered this with my group, Global Unity. I was preoccupied with trying to project my vision through the members of my band, not my instrument. So where I lost an opportunity to have a successful career as a solo artist and bandleader, what I gained was a musical voice--which is much more valuable.

As musicians, we must approach life, our music, and careers with a certain level of indifference. Like the farmer, we must not get too emotionally invested, one way or the other. Our story and the impact of our music will continue long after we're gone. That album you released that only got two stars in Downbeat, might change lives decades later. That tune that you wrote, last minute, might define your legacy. You never know.

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